The Great Recession Novel

Adam Haslett sits down with David Goodwillie to discuss Union Atlantic, his timely first novel about two warring neighbors and a bank on the brink of a meltdown.

Does this sound familiar?

“These new mortgages were being fed into the banks like cars into a chop shop, stripped for parts by Union Atlantic and the other big players, and then securitized and sold on to the pension funds and the foreign central banks.”

Or this?

“The system, in the public eye, was still strong, people’s faith in the value of the money in their pocket such a basic fact of life they couldn’t imagine it otherwise. And yet if you’d been on the calls with the Ministers of Finance or with Treasury… you knew it could have gone differently. One more piece of bad news and the invisible architecture of confidence might have buckled.”

“I want to know about the world we’re living in,” he says. “And I want to know how people cope with the world we’re living in.”

But for the fictional bank—and the first-rate prose—these passages might have come from any one of the dozens of recent rushed-to-print books endeavoring to explain the great financial collapse of our time. Of course, that’s not the case. They’re from Adam Haslett’s unsettlingly prescient debut novel, Union Atlantic, and what makes them extraordinary is this: They were written long before the fall of 2008.

Union Atlantic tells the story of two suburban Boston neighbors—Charlotte Graves, a retired schoolteacher who is slowly losing her grip on reality (she believes her two dogs are speaking to her), and Doug Fanning, a high-flying young banker who has built a massive new-money mansion on land Charlotte believes still belongs to her family. But Doug has other problems. His aggressive—and illicit—trading techniques are pushing Union Atlantic, one of the nation’s largest banks, toward a calamitous public reckoning. As it happens, Charlotte’s younger brother, Henry Graves, is the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve, the man in charge of keeping much of the financial system—and the banks that comprise it—afloat; eventually, the fate of Union Atlantic—both the bank and the book—comes to rest in his genteel hands. These three very different personalities propel the action forward, but a well-drawn supporting cast of lovers, relatives, and co-workers gives the book the weight and depth that moved Nan Talese, Union Atlantic’s editor, to proclaim it “the most brilliant novel of the first decade of the 21st century.”

When a major editor offers such gushing praise, the publishing world dusts itself off and takes notice (see Sonny Mehta’s enthusiastic endorsement on the galleys of Netherland). Haslett, whose 2002 story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, has been working on Union Atlantic pretty much ever since, and for the most part, it shows. Haslett’s canvas is broad, his prose tight, his imagination vivid. Union Atlantic aims for the highest shelf of 21st-century American fiction—think The Corrections, The Fortress of Solitude, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Gilead, and The Road—and while it may struggle to stay aloft in such company (there are some issues of plotting: that Henry Graves is the one man in America who can bring down his sister’s arch-nemesis, for example, will seem too naked and contrived a coincidence for some) what marks the book’s arrival as a major event is simply this: No other novel in recent memory has so accurately depicted the American psyche at the exact moment it was published.

I arrange to meet Haslett at a coffee shop near his home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. He’s just flown back from an appearance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is leaving for a European book tour the next day ( Union Atlantic is already out in France). Still, he’s bright-eyed and eager to talk. We work our way through the book’s many themes, from the alienation, loneliness, and mental instability that also haunts his short fiction, to the enduring problems of class and culture, greed and corruption. Finally, I ask him what every reader will surely wonder: how he managed to write a book about the looming failure of a large American bank and the calamitous threat that failure poses to the wider economy—long before any of that actually happened.

“Most people who were following the global financial system—not so much the markets but the architecture of the system—knew at least since the late '90s that there were these weaknesses,” Haslett says. “We had the Asian currency crisis, the Argentine default, circumstances that were not controllable without huge government involvement. I was writing about a big bank that’s troubled and being regulated by the Fed, and there had been the collapse of Long Term Capital and the collapse of Barings Bank so there was precedent for all that. I wanted to use finance as a background for larger complex interactions. And then, well, I didn’t see [the collapse] coming. It’s just uncanny that it’s what I’d been paying attention to.”

Uncanny is one word. Eerie is another. As the extent of Doug Fanning’s fraud comes to light (he’s been using insider information to place massive contrarian bets on the Nikkei index) and Henry Graves must decide whether to save a vital, if undeserving, institution or let it perish and risk the ripple effects, Union Atlantic begins to resemble an unwitting guide to the real-world events of late 2008.

“I handed the completed draft [of the book] to my editor the week Lehman Brothers collapsed,” Haslett says, shaking his head. “It was a very strange experience, reading those headlines.”

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I tell Haslett that I may have learned more about the roots of the financial crisis from his lucid fictional narrative then from all the hysterical, fact-filled articles I’ve read on the subject, and he laughs.

“I want to know about the world we’re living in,” he says. “And I want to know how people cope with the world we’re living in. We live in a seething, manic culture that’s aggressively distracting, and if there’s one thing a novel might be able to provide, it’s permission to slow down and think through this relationship between the macro and the micro in some way, to give people openness and space. I’d love to believe that the future belongs to the slow.”

It’s an ironic statement, considering how quickly Haslett gleamed that future. Any number of authors—from Thackeray to Fitzgerald to Wolfe—have produced major novels capturing important historical eras in all their comforts and complexities. Surely, Haslett is the first to have written such a book before its era ever took place.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

David Goodwillie is the author of the forthcoming novel American Subversive (Scribner, April 2010), along with the acclaimed memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. He has also played professional baseball, worked as a private investigator, and been an expert at Sotheby's auction house. A graduate of Kenyon College, he lives and works in New York City.