Books@DailyFinance: 'Union Atlantic,' a Novel of the Financial Crisis

Writing about finance has plainly suffered for the unavoidable fact that bankers and writers do not cross paths very much anymore. Bankers work hellacious hours, socialize afterward with other bankers at hellacious lounges and hardly have the time (or more pertinently, incentive) at the end of it all to read. Writers drift from website-launch party to literary reading to shot-and-beer bar, and they get laid off a lot.Until the crisis, this disconnect did not seem a pressing problem. But the financial system has arguably suffered from it, because broader understanding of its needlessly mysterious workings might ultimately broaden our confidence in its resilience. Last spring, the cultural critic Walter Benn Michaels went so far as to argue that, apart from Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 American Psycho, literature had suffered for its cowardly refusal to attack the capital markets and income inequality.

A Triumph of Market Timing

Adam Haslett's new novel Union Atlantic (Nan A. Talese, $26) presents a sincere attempt to correct such cowardice. The story of a banker on the rise, his rogue deputy's desperate struggle to hide a massive trading loss, his "steroidal offense" of a megamansion, and the ensuing legal battle with an eccentric elderly neighbor, Union Atlantic is a timely paean to American idealism and a reflection on what managed to so thoroughly outmode it (greed, violence, Bugaboos). It's also a triumph of market timing any trader could appreciate: Surely it's the first literary novel to sully itself with such monumental arcana as the board composition of the New York Fed.

Haslett's publisher is banking on its good timing. The book's pre-publication press hails it for having "foretold the financial crisis," and it bears a glowing blurb from business-friendly author Malcolm Gladwell, who calls it a "masterful portrait of the age."

So let's start in on its flaws, beginning with the setting. Why is a story whose plot hinges on the shocking vulnerability of the global financial system to the whims of a few testosterone-fueled traders set entirely in small-town New England? And about that testosterone: Why would a purported portrait of an age so dominated and decimated by masculine energy elide the sexual appetites of essentially all its characters, save one gay teenage Radiohead fan?

I could hazard an explanation: Haslett is a product of small-town New England who happens to be gay. But Haslett has never served time on a Navy destroyer or a trading floor, the two realms that conspire to contrive the unyielding (and underdeveloped) worldview of his protagonist, Doug Fanning, and Union Atlantic's patina of worldly urgency. Haslett plainly sought to write a novel on a scale much bigger than his own, of tackling the internal conflicts and interior monologues of individuals with power and influence infinitely vaster -- in practical terms, anyway -- than his drinking buddies and ex-paramours. It's a goal I, like Walter Benn Michaels, generally find commendable; this is, after all, one (practical) way novels might themselves exert broader power and influence. And certainly, I would gladly redistribute as much of both as I could to a sensitive guy like Haslett, especially if it came at the expense of men like Lloyd Blankfein and Larry Summers.

'A Certain Kind of Male Anger'

The trouble is, although it's clearly meticulously researched, Union Atlantic does not seem to know such men, and as a result, the "portrait of the modern Gilded Age" premise/promise feels ambivalent, and perhaps even unwished for. This is partly a deliberate omission: Haslett recently told the magazine Blackbook, "CEOs are so boring." Fair enough. And perhaps the only group of people more boring are the feckless technocrats whom such men generally anoint to positions of regulatory authority -- which may be why Haslett annoined as his fictional New York Fed president the decidedly un-Geithneresque Henry Graves, who hails from what Haslett calls the "dying breed of New Deal Democrats of a certain generation who had belief in the system."

But when this breed is no longer dying but decisively extinct, and the titular titans of the financial sewage system are waiting in their corner offices for the next golden parachute, leaving civilization's very custodianship effectively outsourced to a bunch of guys Haslett accurately believes to be driven singly by "a certain kind of male anger" most vividly exposed in "watching how angry these finance guys are about being denied bonuses"...well, there you have the seeds of a tale much more sinister, and more richly absurd, than this novel.

Perhaps understandably, Union Atlantic -- too skeeved to dig deeply into the rotten core of its subject (how rotten? I dunno, like this or this or this or this or, goodness, this) -- is at its best surveying characters along the periphery, from the aimless teenage boy, Nate, whose infatuation the workaholic Fanning humors as one might a crotch-sniffing stray, to the pompous municipal judge whose plot-advancing cameo animates one of the book's livelier passages. (Haslett is a former lawyer.) It is a testament to Haslett's immense trove of writerly empathy that his most convincing character is a deteriorating spinster whose dogs have begun speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. Whether it is also a testament to the futility of such empathy is left unexplored.

Tomorrow's News Today

Haslett turned in the manuscript to Union Atlantic in September 2008, the very week that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection. That's remarkably fortuitous timing, if not quite so lucky as that enjoyed by Tom Wolfe, whose Wall Street classic Bonfire of the Vanities arrived in stores the week of the 1987 market crash. Wolfe famously boasted in a "literary manifesto" two years later that the mere act of going outside and observing the inner workings of Wall Street and other realms outside the proverbial "comfort zone" had enabled him to write with an almost-eerie clairvoyance about next month's headlines. He urged others to try it out: Fiction can, he assured its campus-marooned practitioners, compete with reality!

But by the fall of Lehman, reality clearly had the short-term upper hand, and Haslett would have been well advised (by someone other than a commercial publisher) to shelve the manuscript for a few months and watch how it all played out. True to Wolfe's promise, Haslett had managed to "predict" many news items, down to one of the more riveting subplots of the Lehman Brothers failure, in which the firm's investment banking chief -- today, one of the highest-paid men on Wall Street -- became so incensed upon hearing that his son's history teacher had made some reference to Wall Street "sleazeballs" that he fired off a five-page letter to the board attesting that the "leftist invectives" had driven his 16-year-old son to tears and demanding the teacher, and a couple other faculty members, be fired.

And indeed, the school's principal was fired last month, in an episode chillingly similar to that suffered by Haslett's fictional rhetoric-spewing spinster -- and beloved sister of the fictional New York Fed president -- Charlotte Graves, a former history teacher whose unceremonious dismissal from her job leaves her with little reason to live, save for the companionship of her increasingly loquacious dogs. "She had seen it at school, the way her students had grown pointed, turned into swords wielded by their masters," Haslett writes knowingly.

Of course, not all readers will bemoan Charlotte's involuntary estrangement from the company of minors. In her takedown of Union Atlantic in The New York Times, book critic Michiko Kakutani wonders why Charlotte's brother hasn't shipped her off to "someplace where she might receive proper psychiatric care and be well looked after." Readers who have spent more time following the political and financial than literary trends over the past decade may be more inclined to agree with Charlotte's take on the situation: "Nearly forty years of teaching history to the children of this town," she laments, "and they had hustled her out for speaking the truth." Those readers may well wish Haslett and his peers could summon such courage.
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