Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

Union Atlantic BY Adam Haslett. Nan A. Talese. Hardcover, 320 pages. $26.
The cover of Union Atlantic

The economy and its discontents can be an anemic topic for literary fiction, and Adam Haslett struggles with this challenge in his debut novel about banking disaster, Union Atlantic. The disaster in question involves “rogue trading” in Japan that threatens to annihilate an entire Boston-based financial monolith, circa 2002. Doug Fanning, director of Union Atlantic’s “Department of Special Plans,” has been sidestepping legal regulations in order to exploit a hot insider tip regarding the Nikkei stock market. After his man in Hong Kong wrangles clients to invest, Fanning independently sends billions of his bank’s money to Asia. Profits soar—until it becomes clear that these “clients” are purely imaginary, and that Fanning has allowed Union Atlantic’s own money to disappear.

Haslett’s explanation of the financial mechanisms tend to drag, as dry as a Wikipedia entry on economic fundamentals, but the intrigue of the market is only one side of Union Atlantic. Instead of dwelling overlong on the specific ways in which capital slinks and slithers across the globe, the author focuses on the human side of all those moneyed transactions: the individual lives affected by the system. Fanning is building an appalling McMansion, a “casino of a house,” next door to Charlotte Graves, a leftist ex-history teacher whose brother, Henry, just happens to be head of the New York Federal Reserve. Charlotte tutors a high school student, Nate, who coincidentally hangs out (and eats magic mushrooms) with the son of Jeffrey Holland, Union Atlantic’s Rupert Murdoch-like CEO.

The book’s sense of tension quickly builds, particularly around Graves’s protests against Fanning’s monstrous house. The problem is that Haslett’s intricate narrative web feels forced. He scored with his short story collection, You Are Not Here, in 2003; here, it seems like he’s trying to take a collection of related short stories and nail them together into the form of a novel.

The stories that comprise Union Atlantic can seem like a litany of bad news. The novel is oversaturated with tragedy: Charlotte’s ex-boyfriend died of a heroin overdose; a bank employee’s brother was recently murdered; Nate’s father hung himself in the woods. Fanning himself is an Iraq War veteran, still struggling with a military screw-up that resulted in the downing of an Iranian airliner and the deaths of 290 innocents.

Fanning himself is emotionally desiccated: a kinder, gentler Patrick Bateman. He’s a single, seemingly friendless workaholic and a comical narcissist—he recalls masturbating to the sight of his own nude body as a youth. He begins an affair with Nate, mainly to convince the kid to steal documents from Charlotte Graves’s house, documents that pertain to a law suit against Fanning’s own property. Haslett essentially explored the same themes (power, sexuality, violence) to more concise effect in his short story “The Beginnings of Grief.” But here, there’s no revelation, no self-discovery; Fanning’s simply hollow inside. “A lifetime of doing only girls, and now Doug had gotten himself into this. A hand job or two was one thing—a convenience—but now the kid was blowing him.”

If there’s an underlying theme uniting the personal and the financial in Union Atlantic, it’s control. Fanning sees himself as a true Master of the Universe, “a shaper of fact.” Haslett is interested in exploring what happens when someone this powerful loses control, but Fanning’s downfall would have been more of a tragedy if the author had succeeded in painting him as anything more than a cipher.

And as Charlotte Graves makes clear, there’s a straight line from Doug Fanning’s manipulation of the markets to the government’s cheerleading of another military intrusion in Iraq. “Dominance. That’s the childish pleasure you people can’t get enough of….And once the men like you start this war of theirs, people will die by the thousands to cure that feeling in them.” Haslett’s finale, set in Gulf War II under George W. Bush, seems to render moot all his characters’ conflicting opinions. Despite their flailing, and their protests, some things never change. Union Atlantic aims to be the Important Social Novel of 2010; instead, it’s an entertaining and topical melodrama. To its credit, the book is a fair snapshot of our current economic and geopolitical impasse: loud, contradictory, yet oddly static.

Scott Indrisek writes for Time Out New York, The Believer, and Anthem.