Union Atlantic is a rare treat; gorgeously written, with a deft line in characters, a novel that through sheer skill alone builds in such potency as to affect the reader's moments and experiences away from its sparkling prose. With a plot that is secondary, but nevertheless expertly threaded through events, Haslett's brilliance - in this his first proper novel - sparkles via his jewel-like observations and poetic takes on eternal truths, somehow fashioning them as brand new and marking himself out as a truly talented author to follow.
As you've probably already heard, Union Atlantic is essentially about economics, more specifically financial meltdown, set as it is against the contemporary American stock exchange. However, despite some engaging insider views on the rabid passions and bizarre, otherworldly, foreign language of financial chicanery, this novel is more about the singular, yet powerful, place finance has in the world at large, and beyond that how actions in life's maze can ripple out, bringing down a whole heap of events to impact on seemingly unconnected individuals far beyond a person's intentions.
With characters connected either through family or fate are steadily introduced in a fashion that in other hands may have proved tedious and distracting - but guided by Haslett unravel into a mesmerizing treat of observation - Union Atlantic spreads out into a fascinating snapshot of everyday American life during this first decade of the twenty-first century. Inevitably, upon starting Union Atlantic, F.Scott Fitzgerald very quickly comes to mind, as well as the notion of the Great American Novel; and whilst much is made of the latter, in conjuring such a beautiful, evocative novel of manners to equal the former's Great Gatsby, Haslett has subtly delivered a work which will surely resonate for many years to come.
Whatever you do, don't for one moment be put off by the subject matter referenced in discussions about this novel. For Union Atlantic is arguably one of the most compelling, beautiful and urgent novels to emerge in a very long time.
This is an odd book to try to place exactly. On the one hand it sets off with the feel of a thriller, with a US army veteran now a banking executive sailing close to the wind. On the other hand it has a rather literary style, which comes to the fore when describing the past life of his neighbour, a batty but likeable elderly lady who stands against the ostentation he has brought to the neighbourhood specifically and indeed against the pre-eminence of money that this represents.
The observations of modern society's obsession with money and power are well made and thought provoking (though the detail of the financial machinations were to me at times rather obscure) and there was a certain impetus to the story that gave it interest. However, the tension between the literary explorations of character and background, and the needs for plot to drive onwards with pace were never fully resolved. The book chops between a section of languid and thoughtful description and frantic action in an unsatisfactory way that gives a disjointed whole.
It's a shame really because clearly there is good quality prose here, and a good idea, but the two don't quite meet in the middle. Nevertheless, I'd be interested in reading another novel by the same author in the future, and would certainly be willing to give it a try with an optimistic approach.
Having just finished reading the book I'm actually finding it hard to describe, but I can assure you it's not a title to overlook.
This short novel, which can be read within a week at a relaxed place, could be seen as a sort of fusion of the movies Syriana and Wall Street...Those two analogies are probably enough to avoid spoiling the book; but there's also some comedy in there, albeit not of the laugh-out-loud sort.
The first striking thing about Haslett's style is how perfectly poetic his words are - they're not overly decorative but vivid and dynamic in a fat-free way, from little details like how traffic lights look on a rainy windscreen to describing drug trips. There are times though when the financial-speak washed over my head and the italicised "preacher" speak was a bit heavy going, but that's more my failing - that said grasping the stories of the protagonists isn't hard. I also must add that as a straight man, there was something quite involving about the gay sex scenes.
Multiple themes seem to be touched here, the ones that stand out are the nature of a dog eat dog world and the value of principles. The characters are well rounded and seem believable as they're planted very well into a non-fictional backdrop. I agree with the professional critics that this is a timely release given that we're in a "new-cession" (a term I heard by a delivery man), but it's also timeless as the moods it brings up in the emotional side of things will always resonate.
All in all, a great book by Haslett, perhaps only losing full marks because it had some predictable turns.
Union Atlantic surprised me, because I liked it when I expected not to - it is not my usual choice of reading. It starts off with the impact on our protagonist of a tragically wrong combat decision. We then follow him into his career in the financial world after having left the forces.
There are several lead characters, all of which are interesting, and one feels the need to keep reading to find out what happens to them next. The plot is topical, with quite a cynical look at the banks, maybe not close enough to the jugular for some of us, or a bit too realistic for others. The book develops nicely across a well defined time-span and feels quite convincing, maybe this really did happen!
Here and there it seems a bit odd, almost as if it is losing its way, and I'm not sure why, especially since much of the book really is very good. So it loses a star for this and a few problems with consistency. But don't let these minor blemishes put you off. In general it is a good read, properly gripping ones imagination.
on 26 July 2010
Adam Haslett's debut novel examines the life of Doug Fanning, a young and successful Boston investment banker in 2001-2003. Fanning, a veteran of the Gulf War, is haunted both by his emotionally damaging childhood and his war service. He is driven to succeed in financial and material terms, but emotionally he is disconnected because he either cannot or will not form meaningful relationships with anyone around him. Fanning moves into a grandiose new house in a quiet town, where he encounters two other emotionally damaged characters - a retired history teacher and a teenage boy whose father has recently died.
The novel seeks to link the financial crises of the last decade and US foreign policy with shifts in the American way of life in recent years. Much of this critique is softened by coming from the voice of the retired history teacher (who is sinking in to dementia) instead of the narrator, so that ultimately it is unclear what the author thinks the root of the problem is, and he shies away from offering a definitive judgement on the state of the nation in recent years.
Haslett writes elegantly and precisely, with occasional passages that are impressively evocative. The writing style is typical of the serious and earnest manner of much contemporary American literary fiction - it is reasonably polished and yet at the same time somewhat bland. The book's main weakness is that its examination of its three central characters seems thin, with the narrative jumping from one scene to another so that meaningful change over time is implied but remains vaguely expressed and thus rather unsatisfying. This is compounded by a wealth of minor characters and events that are of marginal significance to the central plot. For this reason, the novel seems somewhat thin, despite its 320 pages. Although well-written and engaging, "Union Atlantic" seems to promise a little more than it delivers, and leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied.
on 1 April 2011
About three chapters into this book I thought - "good god, this is the book that Tom Wolfe would have written about the financial crisis" The nature of the stories, the characters and the structure is very reminiscent of A Man in Full Haslett, like Wolfe, has a broad spectrum of characters each of whom is touched differently by the wider events that form the backdrop of the story.
So far so good. My brain was saying - The Bonfire of the Vanities (Vintage Classics) nailed the 80s, "A man in full" nailed the 90s and now that Wolfe's powers are fading (I Am Charlotte Simmons was pretty poor) here's a guy to step in. Of course you have the Franztens and the Lethems etc still doing the Great American Novel, but they tend to write more about emotional themes than the "state of the nation"
Unfortunately that's where it falls down... the characters just aren't as fully formed as wolfe's. I found it quite hard to care too much about any of them. The whole point is that because you care about and engage with the characters, then you're genuinely interested in how events will effect them.
If you compare Doug Fanning - the main character in Union atlantic - to Charles Croker from "a man in full" or sherman McCoy from "Bonfire of the Vanities" you see how thin this book really is in comparison. I'm not even going to get into the prose styles, becuase Haslett's stuff is pretty clunky in comparison.
In short - great concept, good ambitious idea for execution, but let down by bad prose and unengaging characters. B- at best - if this looks interesting to you but you haven't read Wolfe already, swerve it and buy the real deal.
'Union Atlantic' is the first novel by a forty-year-old American writer previously known for his short stories. Set in the early 2000s, immediately before the start of the Second Gulf War, with a prologue in 1988, it traces the intersecting lives of characters who together form a composite portrait of modern American manners.
Haslett's story offers the banking industry (and to some degree the increasingly privatised American military) as a microcosm of changing values in contemporary America. The outlines of the story will be familiar to anyone who has followed the recent press accounts of rogue traders and reckless bankers; but although Haslett has clearly done his research, and is adept at keeping the reader imagining different possible outcomes, he is not writing a financial thriller. The central interest lies in the portraits of the main characters. Haslett proves to be an adept of one of the novelist's central skills: the creation of credible and involving human beings of a range of ages, both genders, different races and sexualities and widely separated classes.
Although Haslett has avoided taking refuge in the safe and distant past, as so many of his contemporaries have preferred to do, this is in many ways a rather old-fashioned novel, with old-fashioned virtues. Haslett writes calmly, without false drama, occasionally lifting briefly into a higher register. He allows his story to tell itself, which makes the moments of strong feeling more telling when they do arrive. He has a habit of setting up situations of impending disaster or farce and then leaving it to the reader's imagination to supply the inevitable denouement. He can even be funny: the description of a nouveau riche garden party is a small triumph of social comedy.
'Union Atlantic' is also old-fashioned in offering a clear moral vision that draws the individual lives the author describes, and the story of which they are a part, into something larger: a vision of the dissolution of older American values of probity and independence of judgement by the universal solvents of easy money and political expediency. There is a persistent undercurrent of the damage done to children in early life, the difficulty that we have in escaping our formation. Finally, the disquieting implication that beneath the façade of wealth and success there lurks a still older America, in which the gun is never far from the hand and the frontier still offers an escape for the rootless and desperate. For all its up-to-the-minuteness, 'Union Atlantic' proves to have surprisingly deep literary roots.
This is a good novel that promises better to come. Recommended for anyone with an interest in contemporary American fiction.
Union Atlantic sets out to deliver a hard hitting punch against merchant banking in the US. It succeeds only in part.
On the positive side, the plot keeps things pumping along. Doug Fanning, the anti-hero, has troubles in work as rogue trading network starts to reap a whirlwind. He also has battles with his next door neighbour in Finden; this allows a compare and contrast exercise between the new world and the old world. But the balance is wrong. Doug is supposed to be a workaholic but most of the novel takes place outside the workplace. This dilutes the intensity of the work strand of the novel; effectively it becomes the sideshow in support of the rather less momentous turf war in Finden. We don't get a feel for the intense pressure and stress that Doug would have been under. We get barely a passing mention of the in-fighting, macho posturing and relentless work routine of the financial world.
This is then further hindered by characters that aren't quite three dimensional. Bad people are totally bad; good people are totally good; naïve people are totally naïve. There are no shades of grey; no subtlety; no credibility. Instead of dramatic characterization, we have wild coincidences that would have made Dickens blush. Everyone is related to everyone; friends of friends; long lost cousins (OK, I made that up but you get the picture).
The current global financial crisis could have added relevance to the novel, but the bookending of the plot between the two gulf wars means we were in fact looking at the Nick Leeson/Barings Bank collapse rather than anything more contemporary.
Ho hum. A perfectly decent light read but nothing very special. A missed opportunity.
To some, Doug Fanning would seem to have it all, yet he is damaged goods. His traumatic childhood and experiences in the Gulf War have left him emotionally stunted. Post 9/11, he seemingly lives for his job as a high-powered investment banker, caring for nothing and no-one, and he takes risks - big ones.
Charlotte Graves used to be a teacher, now retired she moulders in her ageing home in the New England countryside with just her two dogs for company. She keeps her mental cogs going with occasional tutoring in history; Nate, a confused teenager, is the current recipient of her wisdom.
Fanning is now in that dangerous mid-life crisis period of his life and having grown up in a poor village, builds his dream house in the posh one up the road where his mother had cleaned houses. Unfortunately it's next door to Charlotte, and on land that used to belong to her father and she thinks she still owns. He's now battling on two fronts - home and work, as it's all going pear-shaped hedging on the Nikkei.
We despise Fanning for the mess(es) he gets into, and it's pity rather than sympathy that he engenders as we gradually find out what makes this hollow man tick. As for young Nate - get a grip man! Charlotte is not an easy woman to like, but we can sympathise with her predicament - a brilliant mind edging into decline - her financial bigwig brother Henry would like to get her into a home, but he is humouring her in her courtcase over the land rights with Fanning:
"Sauntering drowsily in from the living room, the Doberman rested his head in Charlotte's lap, and Henry watched his sister pat him gently on the head.
'You know it's funny,' she said. 'All weekend, I've tried to convince Wilkie here that you're a good sport but he won't believe me, will you Wilkie? He's convinced you're a member of the Klan.'"
As evidenced above, the book is not without humour. Haslett's style though is very dry and observational, the characters tend to describe rather than feel their own emotions, so you can strongly visualise the scenes; particularly those involving Doug where you're almost a bystander. I felt that the plot suffered slightly from the interlocking coincidences that coalesce the stories of the characters together, but this is a timely novel, reminding us of how we got to the state we're now in both at home and abroad. (3.5 stars)
'Union Atlantic' is Adam Haslett's début novel. Whilst not perfect, this is a novel of very high quality from a bright new voice.
The novel's narrative flow is staccato, jumping from one event to another, always forwards in time, but often with chunks of story missing. It is like being outside in the dark, and looking through the lit windows of a large house. Though occasionally distracting, in Haslett's capable hands, this enigmatic style works well.
The premise of the book, is that Doug, a high paid banking executive, has purchased a tract of land in rural Massachusetts and built an enormous house on it. The land used to belong to Charlotte and her family, who gave it to the town in perpetuity. She is now Doug's neighbour, and, appalled by his display of conspicuous consumption, is determined to reclaim the land. In essence, this is a tale of brash new money against traditional values. Those who would deregulate everything in order to make money, against Charlotte, a former history teacher who thinks our world has become sanitised and homogenised, so much as to make life meaningless. Thrown between them is Nate, a student Charlotte teaches, confused about his sexuality and his place in the world. He is torn between his eccentric tutor, and the raw power of the confident, affluent Doug.
The story in 'Union Atlantic' is almost incidental. Haslett's writing is first class, laying bare his character's flawed psyches. It's the writing and the characterisation that win the day here. Characters come and go around the main three protagonists, but all are exquisitely drawn. Haslett lays bare the absurdities of high-finance, the playing of fickle games of high consequence, and examines who really pays the price when multi-billion gambles go bust.
Towards its end, the novel is perhaps too unstructured, the final impact reduced because of some peculiar metaphysical musings, which served only to confuse this reader. Despite this 'Union Atlantic' is a funny and moving novel. It won't be to everybody's tastes, but if you are looking for something a little different, with strong characters and a plot with a conscience, then 'Union Atlantic' is an excellent choice.