And so fiction is, once again, dead. The great books are finished. We’ve reached the end of the modern classic. All that is left to us is sour scourings of the bottom of the barrel. Leastways if you believe certain jaded American hacks. ‘Ooh, the novel,’ they say. ‘It’s finished. Everyone would rather tweet. Or blog. Or play videogames. Or mess around with their iPad or whatever.’ Yes, perhaps a score or so of people (the vinyl-junkies of the reading experience) will hang on to their sun-faded Penguin paperbacks but the rest of us? We’ll be zipping about in our futuristic hovercars and having our truth beamed directly into our eye-balls (like the eye-phones so recently satirised in Futurama). Thankfully, however, the Titanic appears to have quite a good band in assembly if recent novels by Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist), Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets) and now Adam Haslett are anything to go by.
Haslett’s long-gestating debut concerns one Doug Fanning, a veteran of the first Gulf War (who we glimpse in action in the opening pages) and now some sort of financial whizkid, broaching the barely legal and rewriting the constitution as he and his lackeys shift enormous piles of money from one location to another. Having reached a certain level of ‘security’ he asks his lawyer to pick him up some land in his owl hometown of Finden and construct a house, the kind of house you’d expect to be constructed in the last days of Rome. It’s 2002, and ‘new mortgages were being fed into the banks like cars into a chop shop, stripped for parts by Union Atlantic [the bank Fanning works for, or should that be the bank that works for Fanning] and the other big players, and then securitized and sold on to pension funds and foreign central banks.’ Fanning has a neighbour, though, an elderly lady called Charlotte Graves who can remember when Fanning’s property was ‘Trees… All trees.’ Charlotte Graves was a teacher, driven out of the job she’d held for many years by PC bureaucracy, and the daughter of the Finden elite (her father ceded much of his land to the town elders on the premise that it wasn’t developed – the city elders feel enough time has gone by to renege on that agreement; Charlotte disagrees). The protracted simmering resentment between Fanning and Graves, however, is only one aspect of Union Atlantic. There are other characters – Nate Fuller, a young student who has failed in his courses as a result of his father’s suicide, who comes to Charlotte for tuition and slowly finds himself wound into the Bret Easton Ellis-like sexual vortex of Fanning’s world, Charlotte’s brother Henry, head of the Federal Reserve and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fanning’s boss Jeffrey Holland, and Evelyn Jones, an employee of Union Atlantic who is asked to turn a blind eye to certain of Fanning’s misdeeds.
One reviewer favourably compared Union Atlantic to the ‘Scylla and Charybdis of Rick Moody and Tom Wolfe’ – it’s a good phrase to bear in mind, this, if you delve within the pages of Union Atlantic (and, I should add, if you’ve ever had any pleasure thanks to either Moody or Wolfe, I’d heartily recommend Union Atlantic to you). There are certainly strong comparisons to be had with both – the Moody of both Garden State and The Diviners and the Wolfe of (of course) Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full (though, thankfully, not I Am Charlotte Simmons). Unlike Bonfire of the Vanities’ central protagonist Sherman McCoy, though, Fanning is a harder person to like and feel sympathy for (a part of you roots for his downfall and comeuppance) – and this, the hard kernel of unlikeability, is fixed, fast, to the book. Other characters (Charlotte Graves for instance, a woman who you can imagine standing, Canut-like, before the advancing waves of change saying ‘not on my watch!’) resist sympathy at least as much as they elicit it. Perhaps this is what makes Union Atlantic a modern novel, a novel that attempts to put some distance between itself and its obvious progenitors. The switching between narrators and the almost Mike Leigh-ness of the coincidence that places all of the characters at a summer party that is itself beset by a sudden outbreak of cattle might (and has, in some reviewer’s minds) lead you at times to think the wheels are coming off the cart – but Haslett is for the most part a precise and careful writer who knows where he is going and knows how important it is to deny you what you expect.
Any Cop?: All things considered, Union Atlantic felt to this reviewer like a great, satisfying, enjoyable and intelligent novel. If this is what the equivalent of pig Latin is to become, then I for one am happy to find myself on the deck of the Titanic as we plunge into the depths of the icy sea… I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting whatever Haslett does next…