Fictionalizing The Foreclosure Crisis

by Matt Sitman

NPR interviews Patrick Flanery about the backdrop to his new novel, Fallen Land, a thriller that “plays out in a half-built subdivision where construction ground to a halt during the housing crisis”:

I came to thinking about the housing crisis as the natural setting for the story that I wanted to tell. Because I had this vision of somebody who was in a house that was no longer theirs. And it seemed logical to set it against the backdrop of the housing crisis and think about how that was affecting very different kinds of people and the very different situations they find themselves in after foreclosure auctions and things like that…

I wanted the book to speak to a kind of crisis in neighborliness, and thinking about the ways in which people are becoming so inward-looking, and the ways in which it’s incredibly easy — I think in part because of technology — not to think about what’s happening around us. And that’s not just thinking about security but thinking about who needs help. So it’s almost about a crisis of empathy with the people that we should be looking out for but who we fail to look out for in fairly fundamental ways.

Matt Hartman finds the political and social context of the novel an occasional liability. He observes that, in the first couple pages, the book touches upon “the prison-industrial complex, suburban sprawl, strip malls, the prevalence of fast food, industrial farming, and obesity”:

Fallen Land is a sprawling novel about a sprawling house, built in an unnamed state in America’s heartland, and the three generations who owned the land the house sits upon. The novel is unquestionably a novel of the housing crisis, intently focused on the places we make our homes, the machinations that keep us there or force us out against our will, and the connections to the land we’ve gained and lost in the process.

The problem with Fallen Land is that Flanery takes these issues to be novel, as though by speaking of them at all he is “revealing new surfaces for growth.” His everyman character, Nathaniel Noailles, works for a private security firm that concocts ways to increase the profits from their prison labor system. Though this is certainly a crucial issue for America, Flanery approaches the topic without the irony someone like Don DeLillo has used to such great effect, and as a result his earnestness becomes heavy-handed, especially early in the work.