Review of Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
288 pages, $12.99
by George Salis
“You ever think how many songs will go unwritten because of this war, unsung? Paintings unpainted, discoveries unmade? You ever think of that?” asks the young yet strong heroine of Taylor Brown’s debut novel, Fallen Land.
Set near the end of the Civil War, Brown’s novel showcases the carnage of Union military leader William Sherman and the primal instincts many people either embraced or were consumed by. As this quote from Brown’s heroine highlights, extinguishing consciousness and its fruit, such as culture and industry, is one of the main consequences of war, if not its sole function. Why use discussion to change minds when you can simply squelch dissent?
The effects of war are one of literature’s obsessions. War causes us to meditate on the past and wonder at the future or lack thereof; it affects the way we see the world. The German poet and philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel in Philosophical Fragments says, “The historian is a prophet looking backward.” In other words, the past can provide a basis for what is to come, allowing us to predict the future, as it were. Past behavior, as it’s been said, is an indicator for potential behavior, and so it goes with not only the individual but governments and nations too. Where some writers, such as Cormac McCarthy in his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, look forward, Taylor Brown in Fallen Land looks backward.
As if inverting the intent of reading leaves at the bottom of a teacup, Brown uses the darkened grit of the Civil War to predict the past. In Fallen Land, this reverse prophecy is given to us in the form of a grimy, bloodstained daguerreotype of words. Brown produces crepuscular and sepia word-pictures that form the pre-apocalypse. Hyphenated adjectives stick out like rusty nails at times: “close-clutched,” “sharp-edged,” “gut-shot,” “red-lipped,” “inch-deep,” “whimsy-walled,” “green-rotted,” and “dead-handed.” Due to their excess they tend to encumber the prose more often than not.
The plot follows adolescent Irish immigrant and orphan Callum, who, through the circumstances of an indifferent fate, is recruited into a group of pillaging marauders. The allegiance of the group is questionable, which Brown uses to demonstrate the presence of distrust and savage survival. Callum himself can “only wait now for another of his comrades to fall,” so he can “be first to scavenge.”
The opening chapter, originally a standalone short story, is by nature more finely crafted than the rest of the novel. It introduces the reader to the heroine Ava, with whom Callum falls in love and eventually partners with on a dangerous journey. The quick and light-footed Callum sneaks into Ava’s house as a solo scout and discovers her brandishing a knife. She is ostensibly pale and fragile in this first encounter, her “face silly-hard with courage, fear.” But for all intents and purposes, she means to use her weapon, if necessary. (Like Callum, she’s orphaned by war, and thus hardened by it.) “Any closer and I kill you,” she says. While Callum points his empty gun at her, the tension between them builds and the pistol begins “to quiver like a pistol should, whelmed with power.” He is slowly overcome by reticence and remembers some version of himself, something more innocent, as he kinks his wrist “to better see the thing. An object foreign to him.” He lowers his weapon.
While Callum’s actions are at times ennobling and redeeming, other reactions and situations trouble his conscience, his soul. When one of Callum’s comrades stumbles onto the aforementioned scene where love has begun to brew within a cauldron of fear and distrust, he decides to take advantage of the situation and of Ava. All but licking his “tobacco-juiced lips,” he starts unbuckling his belt, intending to rape her. “Christmas come early,” he says. In this situation Callum kills with the up-close crudity of a knife, receiving in the process the scrape of a bullet against his skull that gives him fever dreams lasting days. He feels little compunction for killing his comrade, considering his justifiable motives. Plus, the group was not particularly fond of the man. What disturbs Callum was being in the thick of a situation in which someone so pure and pulchritudinous is exposed to the darkest manifestations of the human condition, thus forcing him to use fatal violence.
Callum’s newfound love is proof of some preserved essence of innocence: “He didn’t want to be like them anymore, the ones behind him,” even if it is to retrieve his and Ava’s stolen goods. Yet while starving, threatened and in this world where chaos abounds, Callum and Ava are forced at times to kill and plunder. This world far transcends the notion of dog-eat-dog; rather, it is human-eat-human, which is why the perception of men as ghosts is continually evoked. The land is described as “full of all these haunts,” and Callum wonders, “Men or ghosts of men—he didn’t know which was worse.” In this realm, the eating of another’s flesh is not yet as common as the eating of another’s soul and the self-consumption of one’s soul: phagocytosis, spirit-eat-spirit.
Fallen Land frequently reminds the reader of Greek oracles, false predictions and near-guesses, of truly reversed ‘prophecies’ made in hindsight, and all those hypotheses that we hope might turn out differently or not at all. Brown’s characters have a deep interest in prophecy, for knowing the future softens the fear of obscurity; in theory, it allows them to prepare. During a pre-slumber musing, Callum yearns for what seems an unnamed Boeing 747, or some other kind of plane that could perform such a feat: “…he wondered if given something fast enough, a machine or beast heretofore unfathomed, a man might outride the night itself, racing apace with the sun under a sky of eternal light. Never lost, never cold.” Or, to exhume the mythological past, he could be itching for the chariot of Helios and his winged steeds. Much later, upon seeing the nearly ubiquitous evidence of the army’s advance, “as though they were merely hacking into the earth until the hot core of the world bubbled up in fire,” Ava remembers her father talking about an event such as this. She explains a landscape to Callum, using her father’s insight:
“He said these prehistoric shorelines cut across the land at places,
specially down here. Said the land, it goes suddenly flat like this because it
used to be underwater. All this…all this used to have fish swimming in it.
Sea monsters with giant teeth that aren’t even around anymore.”
As terrible as this aquatic domain sounds, Callum and Ava find themselves living in the terrestrial version of it.
On Ava’s insistence the couple tracks down a rumored soothsayer, finding him perched amid the ruins of a scorched cabin. “I cannot be asked to convene with the Almighty without the proper…antifogmatic,” says the charlatan, referring ironically to liquor. But the inebriated are anything but clear-minded and he produces one of the least original prophecies one can muster during wartime: one of them will die before the end of the year. With this knowledge in particular, they nearly lose each other, coming close to a self-fulfilled prophecy.
In this Fallen Land, innocence, whether acknowledged or ignored, endures and the novel follows Callum and Ava on their journey to an ideal future. Callum sees Ava as a monument to “the good thing he knew existed.” Their relationship is symbiotic and born of love as much as chaos: they both hold sacred Ava’s stillborn brother, forever preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, a pickled symbol of an unjust and apathetic world.
George Salis received a B.A. in English and Psychology from Stetson University. He is the recipient of the 2015 Sullivan Award for Fiction, the 2015 Ann Morris Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Davidson Award for Integrity in Journalism. He contributes criticism to Atticus Review and journalism to Stetson Magazine. His flash fiction piece, ‘Always on the Shore,’ is forthcoming from The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle in the spring of 2016. He is currently writing his first novel.