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Union Atlantic Paperback – February 8, 2011
In Twenty Years: A Novel
When five college roommates gather after twenty years, can the rifts between them be repaired? Learn More
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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)
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
One of most unassuming of these, Henry Graves, is President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. At one point, he escorts a bank employee down to the basement of the Fed, to take a look at the physical gold that apparently provides a standard of value to our financial system. It sits in stacks in cages. In the context of this novel, this gold clearly has a larger meaning. "Add it all up," Henry says, "and it's no more than eighty or ninety billion worth. The wires clear more than that in an hour. All anchored to nothing but trust." Without that trust, we have no society; not even a loaf of bread can be sold or consumed. This novel explores what happens when fraud (in war, in love, in family) destroys that trust. It is thus not an easy novel to read. Indeed, there is a disturbing cynicism at its core. Though it is set in the year after Sept. 11, 2001, the editor explains that it was completed the week that Lehman Bros. fell; it is thus a weirdly (though bleakly) wise and prescient novel.
More than one of the chief characters is self-destructive. (I will limit myself here to what is implicit and present at the beginning, so as not to spoil the plot.) As the novel opens, a high school student whose empathy extends to both the two feuding neighbors has lost his father to suicide.Read more ›
A number of reviewers have noted that the book is basically a morality of play with Charlotte on one end standing up for what she believes in; Doug is on the other cutting corners everywhere so he can to maximize Union Atlantic's profits; and Nate, the teenager is in between, as an undeveloped character.
I would agree with this and take it all a bit further. Charlotte is the person who stands up for what she believes in. As a teacher, she offers up history, including the darker episodes in our past and is eventually forced out because of it. Everyone tells her to tone it down, just go along. Even when she fights to preserve the land her grandfather donated to the town, she is urged to give in and move on. Ultimately, she loses her mind. While other factors have also brought it on, I kind of felt it represented the futility felt by some during the period. Oppose the war? You were called unpatriotic/with us or against us. Question government? You were warned of mushroom clouds and terrorists winning. Who would not go crazy?
Doug, on the other hand, is all about profits at all costs, winning, and collecting the material goods along the way.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A damning indictment of the empty greed of today's financiers.Published 22 months ago by Lee Kidder
I admired this book primarily because Haslett chose to write about large issues in our culture, and because he made complicated ones (investment banking) easy to understand. Read morePublished on January 19, 2014 by Rick Comandich
We discussed this book in our bookclub and no one liked it. We thought it was hard to follow--it seemed to take the author about half of the book to decide just where he was... Read morePublished on January 16, 2014 by NanRick
I am pushing myself to give this three stars. I feel as though I just finished it yesterday, I will mostly forget what it's about tomorrow. Read morePublished on May 10, 2013 by Gordon
The Washington Post's Ron Charles reviewed this novel in 2010 and one of the words he used to describe it was "strange. Read morePublished on January 4, 2013 by J. Smallridge
"Union Atlantic" is a story of convergences: the past with the present, money with morality, and the storylines of four characters.
Each character has their own story. Read more
This mystery revolves around two people who come from different backgrounds. There is a murder, but one must figure why the murder was committed. Read morePublished on October 24, 2012 by Dr. Jones
Doug Fanning, a cocky war hero, is a tremendously successful banker in Boston, where he works for a major financial institution. Read morePublished on August 4, 2012 by Larry Hoffer
I bought this book on the recommendation of a WaPo reviewer as a better choice than the book he was reviewing. Read morePublished on July 11, 2012 by Wisconsin Reviewer