In his early essay “Style as Craftsmanship,” Roland Barthes observes that the value of the novel has been determined, since Flaubert, “not by virtue of what it exists for, but thanks to the work it has cost … [the writer] roughs out, cuts, polishes, and sets his form exactly as a jeweller extracts art from his material.” Writers, Barthes says, “form a kind of guild … in which work expended on form is the sign and the property of a corporation.”
Adam Haslett—graduate of Swarthmore and the Iowa Writers Workshop, as well as Yale Law School—is an exemplary product of what we might call the American Writers Guild. His first book, a collection of stories called You Are Not A Stranger Here, embodies all the virtues of the dominant (though certainly not the only) workshop aesthetic, a lineage that runs from Flaubert and Chekhov to Yates, Maxwell, and Cheever: precision, polish, understatement, subtle flashes of humor and lyricism mingled with ironic detachment. His characters, mostly young men from WASPy Northeastern surroundings of privilege and rigidly high expectations, are unmoored and quietly wretched, suffering from family breakdowns, depression, or unexpected loss. If the book suffers from a slight feeling of blandness and a low emotional temperature, those, too, fit perfectly with its principles: the beige-on-beige refinement of a pricey sole meuniere.
It is notable, then, that Haslett’s new novel, Union Atlantic, contains a minor but significant character who also has an MFA and an aspiration to write: Sabrina, the catty but perfectly efficient secretary to the novel’s protagonist, Doug Fanning, a financial titan who is second-in-command at one of the nation’s largest banks. A working-class go-getter, Fanning has leapt from a brief but tragic career in the Navy to a meteoric rise in high finance. Sabrina is a pretentious wastrel, “on the glamorous side of gaunt,” who, after sleeping with Fanning, feels “comfortable indulging a degree of sullenness that would otherwise have been considered unprofessional … a compensatory fantasy … for the inherent powerlessness of a person with an advanced degree in short fiction.”
Union Atlantic is a world turned upside down, socially, economically, aesthetically. Haslett has declined to rewrite Revolutionary Road, and has instead gone for broke with a novel that takes on the largest possible questions: the fate of the American empire and the meaning of America itself. The action moves, with high Aristotelian perfection, from the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 to the beginning of the second, in 2003, and contains two synchronized plots: Fanning’s war with his elderly, half-delusional Connecticut neighbor, Charlotte Graves, over the right to build a bloated McMansion on her family’s former property, and his illicit bet of billions of dollars on the Nikkei index, which threatens the stability of the entire American economy. Along the way we meet a host of absorbing minor characters: the bank’s African American head of compliance, who sacrifices her career to blow the whistle on Fanning’s scheme; a drifting teenaged boy who meets Fanning by accident and becomes his lover; and perhaps most importantly, Henry Graves, the head of the New York Federal Reserve, who also happens to be Charlotte Grave’s brother.
One would expect a novel of such ambition and scope to reach the five-hundred-page mark, take a breath, and keep going: think Underworld, Tree of Smoke, The Corrections. But Haslett lacks the slightly manic quality, the barbaric I-contain-multitudes yawp, the frantic urgency and polylingual joy of a large-scale novelist. Instead, when his decorous style fails him, his prose becomes terse and rote, in the manner of a suspense thriller:
“Three years had passed since he’d left Alden without saying a word to his mother about where he was going. And though in the last twenty-four hours, since the incident, he’d been tempted to call her, that would mean having to account for himself, when all he wanted to do was tell someone the story. Someone who hadn’t been there.”
There are a number of additional complaints one could make about the structure of Union Atlantic—its implausibility, its lack of subtlety and heavy-handed foreshadowing—but none of them should obscure the fact that Haslett is a skilled writer with a painfully acute feeling for the dynamics of family life in old New England families. The strongest parts of the novel, by far, center on the relationship between Charlotte and Henry: Charlotte, who clings to her rotting house, nursing old grudges and listening to her dogs, who have begun to speak to her in the voices of Malcolm X and Cotton Mather; Henry, weighed down by the unbearable responsibilities of his work, trying to convince her to stay in the present and find a better way to live out her days.
More than anything else, it is Haslett’s inability to create a convincing portrait of Doug Fanning that makes this book so frustrating. A classic shark, an entrepreneur, a rags-to-riches opportunist, Fanning is presented in the starkest terms: unreflective, manipulative, humorless, and—most importantly—rootless. Even his brief excursion into a gay relationship is venal and opportunistic: he persuades his young lover to spy on Charlotte Graves and help him win his lawsuit. Feeling no lasting connection to any person or place, he sells his mansion as soon as he has asserted its right to exist; and when his financial malfeasance is exposed, he flees the country and goes to work as a military contractor. The novel ends with a certain sense of relief that this arriviste mercenary of commerce, after doing his worst, has been expelled from the country.
Fanning, in sum, is the novel’s scapegoat, the embodiment of all our flaws, who we eliminate as a sacrificial victim. And this role reveals the paradox at the heart of Union Atlantic: having committed himself to the values of graceful verbal economy—the aesthetic of Barthes’ “corporation” of literature—Haslett tries to conjure up a protagonist who views himself as “an artist of the consequential world … [a] shaper of fact … not … some precious observer of effete emotion.” The problem is that we know all too clearly that nothing Fanning says or does qualifies as “art.” Not just in its plot, but in its very language, Union Atlantic reveals itself to be an unconscious contest between aristocratic taste and nouveau riche greed. Taste wins out, but here—as in so many cases—the reader is the poorer for it.
Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu. His new collection of stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, will be published later this year.