Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic had been getting quite a bit of buzz, including the coveted Fresh Air interview.1. So I decided to grab it hot off the library shelf when it arrived. Haslett’s first novel, following a critically acclaimed volume of short stories, is largely about the circumstances leading to the current financial crisis.
What I suspect garnered much of the attention for this novel is its setting several years previous to the actual – the historical – meltdown that currently reverberates through our lives lending it, for some, a feeling of prescience. Notable also is the meltdown’s proximity to the events of 9/11 and the subsequent second Iraq war. In essence Haslett has taken the three defining events of the past decade and squished them together for viewing through a literary lens.
Union Atlantic is Haslett’s view of our contemporary world. As such, he offers some critiques. His main character, Doug Fanning, is an ex-military2 man turned ultra-rich banker. In some ways he is the poor boy made good but in others he is a symbol of morally barren America. In the other corner is Charlotte Graves, a failed history teacher from old money who rages against what modern society has become as embodied by Doug Fanning. In between are a cast of characters who will be familiar to most readers in situations that should be as unsurprising as they are competently rendered.
Union Atlantic is engaging but flawed. Though Haslett’s work may well have been prescient when he began, the fact is that much of his tale feels familiar. What may have been a cautionary tale ends up being a simple retelling of what we have just lived through. Union Atlantic, the bank for which the novel takes its name, may have been a compelling character in its own right if we didn’t know so much about Bank of America, or Chase, or AIG or any number of other institutions Too Big To Fail. Instead it is just a grim rehashing of what we already know personified by characters who are no less likable in their personal lives than are their professional actions.
For all its hype, I came to Union Atlantic having read little about it and with few preconceived notions. The one snippet I had seen was the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s review calling out the novel for being uneven. For much of the novel I scratched my head at this verdict. Sure, there are matters of taste, but the writing seemed coherent and the narrative had a confident stride. It wasn’t until the end that I finally realized the truth of Kakutani’s criticism.
Haslett has a sure hand with character and his scene depicting Massachusetts high society on the Fourth of July is one of the best I have read in recent memory. But in the end, the story doesn’t cohere. For all the interconnectedness and tightly woven stories that begin the novel, the characters simply dissipate into the mist. For all the bang that Haslett seems to point to, the final notes are more of a fizzle. Sure, this could be an indictment of the modern existential condition, but I don’t think that’s where Haslett had his sights set.
Union Atlantic points to Haslett’s skill as a short story writer. He writes scene and character well but can’t seem to hold it together for the long haul. He has little to offer in terms of insight to a public over-saturated with news coverage about what exactly happened to whom and why in the banking crisis3. Instead we are left with something that very much resembles a petting zoo. Come see the local fauna. Ogle their rich/lavish/empty/principled lives. See them interact in their native habitat. This was enough to keep me reading but not enough for me to insist that you do the same.
1 Although honestly, God save us from Terry Gross already.
2 His military experience providing context for both the terrorist bombings and the brewing conflict in with Iraq.
3 And really, this probably isn’t his fault. But as they say, timing is everything.