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Union Atlantic

by Adam Haslett
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • Publishing date: 09/02/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780385524476
  • ISBN: 0385524471


A Q&A with Adam Haslett

Question: Union Atlantic has two main story lines. One is about a conflict over a piece of land between two neighbors, Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher, and Doug Fanning, a young banker; the other is about the financial troubles at the bank where Doug works. How did these two events come together for you as you wrote the novel?

Adam Haslett: The characters are what came first. I created each of them separately before I ever knew how they would inhabit the same novel. The first was Charlotte’s brother Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, whose first sections I wrote ten years ago. I’d become fascinated by this idea of the anonymous power that the Fed and other public and private bureaucracies have over our daily lives and I wanted to place a character at the pinnacle of one of those organizations, mostly to discover for myself how that kind of mind would work. That, in turn, gave me the idea of a troubled bank that the Fed would be regulating, and thus a banker, who became Doug Fanning. Charlotte was the other major figure and it was in writing about her as she lived alone with her dogs in the semi-rural town of Finden that I came up with the idea of this land her grandfather had donated to the town for preservation and her anger at it being sold and a mansion being built on it. The last to arrive on the scene, so to speak, was Nate Fuller, the grieving teenager, who comes to Charlotte for tutoring and ends up with a crush on Doug.

Question: Which of these four main characters do you identify with the most?

Adam Haslett: I identify with each of them in different ways. Charlotte’s fierce convictions about the importance of history, literature, and art. Henry’s conflicted belief in both good government and keeping the system afloat. Nate’s sorrow and desire. And even the violence of Doug’s ambition. You have to expose part of yourself to create a character deep enough for readers to care about. You try not to because it’s hard and at times shameful, but then when you read those pages over and you see they have no life to them so you throw them away and force yourself to be more honest. So I suppose the answer is I see myself in all my characters, in their best moments and in their worst.

Question: Charlotte’s mental deterioration is both heartbreaking and chilling. She’s such a proud woman, with such zeal, but her thoughts are turning against her. Can you talk about the role her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie, play in this unraveling?

Adam Haslett: As with many of the characters from my first book, solitude is a basic fact of Charlotte’s life. The man she loved when she was young died many years ago and she’s lived on her own ever since. It’s her dogs who keep her company. And as we all know, owners speak to their pets. When I began writing Charlotte and figuring out how the intensity of her interior life would manifest itself, it occurred to me that she might hear the Mastiff and the Doberman speaking back at her. And because she is an upholder of what I see as a decaying tradition of humanism, I chose two figures who I think of as part of the superego, or guilt that lies behind American liberalism--the puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, and the black separatist, Malcolm X. They share a castigating, high-rhetoric that captures something of the violence Charlotte experiences in her own thoughts. And it’s their voices, the unconscious of her own tradition, which grow louder throughout the book, until eventually she is overcome by them.

Question: How and why did you choose Boston and its surrounding suburbs as the backdrop for your novel?

Adam Haslett: The simplest answer is that that’s where I grew up. First on the south shore, near Plymouth, and then later west of Boston. It’s the landscape I know best, the one where my memories run the deepest. It’s also a place where you feel the weight of the past quite easily, given its history, and the evidence of it, mostly in old buildings and houses. Charlotte and Doug’s conflict over the land that Doug has built his house on comes out of that history. She sees him as a tasteless intruder; he sees her as an anachronistic snob. And they both have their points.

Question: Most of your novel is written in a fairly direct, realist manner, which in the intense scenes, particularly with Charlotte and the dogs, rises a few registers into more lyrical language. Can you talk a little about the style of Union Atlantic?

Adam Haslett: For better or worse, I care a lot about holding my reader’s attention. Perhaps obsessively so. I think of myself as crafting an experience for her or him. And so I want them with me as I move through a scene or a thought. Once your reader is with you, they’re willing to go places, to take leaps. I think a writer has to earn that trust, in whatever style they are working in. And so ninety percent of the work goes into the sentences. Trying to create a rhythm in the writing that does more than just communicate information. That’s why in the end you can never summarize a book. It exists in the sequence of words that it was written in and nowhere else.

Question: The novel takes place during the lead up to the Iraq War and it involves a bank that has taken excessive risk, thus endangering the whole financial system. These two issues, war and finance, have dominated much of the country’s attention in the last decade. Was it your intention to write a topical novel?

Adam Haslett: I wouldn’t say I was aiming to be topical. I finished the book the week that Lehmann Brothers collapsed, so during the writing I was mostly worried that no one would know what the Federal Reserve was, or if they did they wouldn’t want to read about it in a novel. That said, I do feel a responsibility as a writer to try to understand what it’s like to be alive in the world today. We live in an insanely complicated and distracting culture which makes it very hard to slow down and think through the consequences of actions taken by individuals, governments, and corporations. I did feel a duty to try to dramatize at least some fraction of this maelstrom. You write the book you want to read, and I wanted to read a book that would bring together the micro and macro scale of contemporary life. That was my ambition, more than an attachment to any particular set of current events.

(Photo © Brigitte Lacombe)

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  • Excellent prose but too much story for this novel
    From Amazon

    "Union Atlantic" is the debut novel of Adam Haslett and contains many storylines all interwoven together. Three of the major players are 1) Doug Fanning who was raised by an alcoholic mother where money was always tight - he becomes a huge financial success and still isn't "whole", 2) Charlotte Graves is a retired school teacher who wishes to preserve the local area as it is and protect it from the intruders from the city, and 3) Nate Fuller, a high school student going through all the angst commonly associated with that age group and involved in relationships with both Charlotte and Doug which are complex and troubled. These three characters are intertwined in surprising ways and a whole host of secondary characters add complexity to the story. On the positive side, Adam Haslett can write. He is able to draw pictures with words in a way that I can only envy; the prose is often beautiful in this novel. There are also sections where he puts into words what is just a nagging feeling in the back of other's minds -- there is a description early on where he writes about the large SUVs that are being driven around town that "looked as if they should have gun turrets mounted on their roofs, manned by the children glaring from the backseat." On the negative side, this is one of those novels where I felt the author was trying too hard to write something of significance. It seemed to be all over the board for me without a strong enough focus - there is war, there is the collapse of major banking institutions, there is the gentrification of low-key areas, there are multiple dysfunctional families due to a myriad of issues and I could go on and on since the list doesn't end there. While only 300 pages, it seemed too short to accommodate all the author was trying to throw in. Overall, a gifted writer who took on too much and wasn't completely successful.

  • Bold and Complex: My Favorite of 2010 So Far
    From Amazon

    What do talking dogs, neighborly feuds, banking misconduct, slacker teens, ostentatious wealth, an illicit and unhealthy sexual relationship, and the potential collapse of the American financial system have in common? On the surface, you might say--"not much." But each is key element in Adam Haslett's fascinating and irresistibly complex stunner "Union Atlantic." Incredibly hard to describe, but beautifully written, Haslett has created a meaningful and memorable portrait of America at the dawn of the 21st century. At the simplest level, the bulk of the story might be described as a financial thriller with one of the most engaging anti-heroes/villains I've encountered in a long time. But that is just one character and a fraction of the story! Since I can't really describe "Union Atlantic" in any way that will do it justice, I'll just introduce the three main characters: Doug Fanning, a wildly successful and ethically compromised banker, has traded his meager upbringing and military background for a shot at the American dream. Charlotte Graves, a former teacher, is trying to maintain an idealism and, in the process, hold onto her sanity. Nate Fuller, a unfocused and troubled teen, is navigating his place in the world and learning to understand himself. Each of these principle characters could easily sustain a novel unto themselves. That's how well drawn they are. But Haslett somehow brings them together in surprising and relevant ways. Even the supporting players are fully realized and given real dimension. At times, the disparate elements and story threads of Haslett's novel don't always seem to fit together in the same book--but that is the brilliance of "Union Atlantic!" In a very unorthodox way, it tells several different tales about a very specific time in modern American history. Characters with little in common are still quite interconnected, almost tragically so. Each is trying to make sense of a changing, and ever more impersonal, world with varying amounts of success. I loved the messiness of "Union Atlantic." Real, bold, outlandish, topical, and relevant--I suspect readers will describe "Union Atlantic" in a number of different ways based on its complexity. But it's still immensely readable and entertaining with bursts of unexpected humor. Haslett's juggles so much content so successfully, it's hard not to sing the praises of "Union Atlantic" and a new literary voice!

  • Emotional complexity and situational ethics
    From Amazon

    With his debut novel, Adam Haslett has written a nuanced story for our times. Arguably, it is the story of self-made banker, Doug Fanning, as the novel begins and ends with him. However, Fanning is just one of a small ensemble of richly-drawn characters orbiting and intersecting each other. The banker is embroiled in a lawsuit and property dispute with Charlotte Graves. Charlotte is an aging schoolteacher who is in the process of slowly, sadly loosing her mind. Witnessing this is Charlotte's brother, Henry, who also happens to be the President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Henry is the ultimate authority to whom bankers like Fanning, who play fast and loose with their clients' money, must answer. And finally there is 18-year-old Nate Fuller, infatuated with Fanning and Charlotte in very different ways. These characters and several others defy easy classification. It's far too simplistic to paint Fanning as the villain of this story. Although this novel is set in 2002, Haslett sheds a great deal of light on the banking environment that led to the recent bailouts. No one sets out to defraud the public. No one thinks they're the bad guy. One small decision leads to others; events snowball and grow out of control. Fanning relies on situational ethics in both his personal and professional life, with devastating consequences. Charlotte, on the other hand brings to bear an unyielding moral code that does almost as much harm. The story that unfolded on the pages of Union Atlantic was filled with ethical and emotional complexities. They made the novel feel like so much... more... than a mere story in a book. It had the complexity and messiness of life. Haslett's prose shines throughout, but does not overshadow, the tale he's telling. Wow, talk about a writer to watch! Surely, this will be one of the strongest debuts of the year.

  • The Aughts, Unhappily Revisited
    From Amazon

    Topical novels tend to rise and fall depending on how well they evoke the time in which they come out. By this measure, Union Atlantic is inescapably excellent. The central characters are generally either selfish or weak (or crazy). The book's main plot centers around a very contemporary story of fast money and financial trickery. The various financial maneuverings are convincingly authentic but easy to follow. What author Haslett winds up depicting is a world in which peoples' material desire have taken complete control over suppressed and barely understood spiritual desires, and the only person who is able to make sense of the situation is literally out of her mind. Telling, that. The novel is pretty straightforward: none of the postmodernist headgames that predominate contemporary American fiction, which is good. It's a book full of well-drawn characters placed in interesting situations, and the book touches on a lot of different themes while keeping a consistent tone of dread and fear--which seems to be how things are going these days. Perhaps my biggest complaint about the book is that it's much too short--not to the extent that lots of stuff was just glossed over, but I did feel that the world of the book was pretty tight and cramped, and the whole book could have been a little more epic. All in all, though, this is quite a solid novel that has some ideas on how we got to this point. Great reading.

  • Malfeasance Of Our Times
    From Amazon

    Modern man loses his soul in this dark, stirring novel. A story for this decade, Adam Haslett presents the complex global financial market and how it should work and how it fails when a few players can change the stability of the credit and investment system. This is a well-written story that takes us from the Strait of Hormuz to the bustle of Boston. Doug Fanning, growing up on the wrong side of town with a drunken mother, leaves home, joins the navy and later as a civilian, becomes a brilliant, renegade banker. He fears no one, cares for no one and believes he is rather infallible. He learns too late that one cannot really depend on anyone else and mistakes can happen. He is handsome, mean, and clever; he is not married and has no children. He represents the "greed is good" sentiment and uses and abuses people for his own gain, On the other end of the spectrum is Charlotte Graves, a schoolteacher forced to retire, who desperately is trying to reclaim the land on which Fanning has built an outlandish, modern house. She speaks to her dogs, Samuel and Wilke, and they speak to her. Their speeches become more irrational and philosophical as Charlotte's plight and medical stability disintegrates. Charlotte is the older sister of Henry Graves, the President of the New York Federal Bank. Another defining character is teen Nate, whose father committed suicide. He is tutored by Charlotte and becomes an anomalous, sexual companion to Fanning. What the story emphasizes is the financial institutions' power to disrupt our lives no matter which side they are on. Simply put, a big investment house is first in line to get paid when businesses or homeowners go bankrupt and they are first again to finance when there is a re-emergence. In the depths of the novel is Charlotte's historical philosophy that renders more sanity despite her ramblings. The bad people are bailed out and a few are punished. Haslett does a good job of explaining the financial landscape and develops characters who are perpetrators of illegal acts, those who hold on to democratic ideals and the rest who don't have a clue.

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