Thursday, 1 July 2010

'the invisible architecture of confidence'

You who celebrate bygones,/Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life that has exhibited itself,/Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and priests,/I, habitan of the Alleghenies, treating of him as he is in himself in his own rights,/Pressing the pulse of life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride of man in himself,) Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,/I project the history of the future.

'Bracing stuff, no? The question is, can you chant personality without devolving into solipsism? Can you trust the pulse of life without becoming Mr. Fanning? Because he is the future. One way or the other. His kind of rapaciousness, it doesn't end. It just bides its time.'

Union Atlantic 
by Adam Haslett

It was last year's buzz around this début novel at the Frankfurt Book Fair that first drew my attention to Adam Haslett. His first book - the story collection, You Are Not A Stranger Here - was swiftly purchased and proved to be a stunning read. Even so, the prospect of a novel about the current financial collapse, a 'parable for our time', conjured up images of a weighty tome, The Corrections meets Underworld, and more strain on my wrists in pursuit of the Great American Novel. When the book arrived however I was surprised to find that it is only 300 pages long (and the slightly smaller format hardback), a far more approachable volume and one that performs the rather magical trick of containing far more within those constraints than would seem possible. It is a book that manages to achieve all that you would expect from a novel with pretensions to something far grander, never losing its focus on a cast of three main characters, continuing the specificity of his shorter fiction but opening it out into something that manages to include 9/11, the Gulf War, race, sexism, sexuality and financial catastrophe without ever seeming to reach too far.

We first meet Doug Fanning as he mans a monitor aboard the Vincennes, an American warship in the Persian Gulf. His inaction makes him culpable in the downing of an Iranian passenger jet and the loss of 290 lives but rather than face any real censure he ends up being rewarded with a combat ribbon. That kind of Teflon coating makes him perfect for a job in finance and we next see him at his zenith having helped transform a small bank into a global player as head of the suitably dodgy sounding Special Plans. His reward to himself is the construction of a vast mansion in the area near where he grew up as a child and it is that really which is the centre of the book rather than the financial institution that lends the novel its title. Described by an estate agent as a 'Greek Revival chateau' the house has been built on once-wooded land bequeathed to the town by the grandfather of Charlotte Graves. She, as his nearest neighbour, now looks on at 'this steroidal offence' and determines to fight to regain the land and have the house removed.

Charlotte is the book's best creation. A former teacher forced from the classroom after parents complained that her teaching of history was too negative ("Yes. So was Dachau.") she is now an occasional tutor living in a remote farmhouse with her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie. Her family have long historical links to the area and she herself is almost as much part of the landscape with her own physical and mental decline into old age mirrored by that of the family's house and barn.

So a few months ago the conversations in her head had grown a bit in volume, and pushing outward the bicker and debate had circled into her companions, Wilkie and Sam, with whom she'd always communicated in one way or another. So what? They'd taken to conversation in the way she would have predicted from their personalities: Sam the more arrogant of the two, convinced of himself, Wilkie making up for self-doubt with an added righteousness. Were the flower children-cum-yuppies going to cart her off for an imagination gone too florid?

It isn't quite as safe as she pretends, by her own admission 'their talk had begun to veer from what occupied Charlotte's conscious mind. More and more the topics were their own.' and Haslett is quite brave with the way writes in this 'dialogue'; Sam, the Mastiff, a stentorian preacher and Wilkie, a Doberman, the reincarnation of Malcolm X. With these two forbidding companions the battle lines are clearly drawn between the old and new America and Charlotte is the impassioned voice against 'The despoilers. The patriots of capitalism.'

'...just look at what's going on. Take a step back for a moment, and look at what's going on in this country...I mean the last thirty years. And then tell me if you can honestly say that the intrusion of that house, the cutting down of those woods, whoever they might have belonged to once, doesn't stand for something, for a rot more pervasive.'

But Charlotte isn't just some old crazy in the woods. We are given an indication of her brilliance as a teacher when she takes on a new pupil, Nate Fuller, in order to help him achieve his grades. Nate is drifting through an adolescence of drug-taking and alcohol, along with the other privileged kids that are his contemporaries, but something about the unorthodox methods employed by Charlotte begin to unlock something in his addled brain.

With her voice veering from angry to elegiac, she sounded as if she were narrating stories brought to mind by family photographs, the actors all intimates, their deeds still full of consequence and culpability.

This isn't a tale of youth redeemed however, as Nate becomes the link between the feuding neighbours when he is caught wandering around Doug's empty home. If we thought Doug was ruthless before this point then Haslett takes things even further. Nate, confronted by the 'surface tension' of Doug's body and the 'cocksuredness about him that the jocks at school could only hope to emulate', finds his sexuality exploding into action and expression, with Doug prepared to exploit it to the full in order to obtain the information, and indeed documents, to help him fight Charlotte's legal challenge.

...something in Nate's demeanor had goaded Doug on - his lack of defense, a vulnerability the shyest women lacked. It was a provocation of sorts, such weakness.

So Doug's hubris and the battle to save his house and career as the plot at Union Atlantic unravels into financial catastrophe, Charlotte's twin battle's against mental decline and modern America with the possibility of redemption through Nate and Nate's own turmoil with his awakening sexuality - all this would perhaps be enough but Haslett has the ambition to include even more; to unify his characters with something far more human than the plot of the novel. Each in their own way is dealing with love and loss and the tender way in which Haslett does this, which you might think would be drowned out by the mechanics of everything else I have mentioned, is perhaps the book's greatest achievement. It isn't a question of explaining away Doug's villainy, Charlotte's madness or Nate's malleability but of making sure that these are not their only characteristics - three characters in three dimensions in three hundred-odd pages (along with all of the themes and ideas already mentioned) - to attempt, and largely achieve, all of that is nothing short of miraculous.

 Now, my slightly garbled attempt to appreciate the book's many components may have exhausted your patience, but I crave one final indulgence, for one thing I haven't mentioned yet is how beautifully written it is. Even when detailing the machinations of global finance there is a clarity and energy that reflects the clear-thinking required when inhabiting the outer reaches of legality. Below is a passage that perhaps expresses something of my own inability to summarise the book succinctly and, metaphorically, the desire to understand the complexities of human relations and what brought the financial world to crisis; a passage which is in fact simply a boy staring at wallpaper.

Little indigo diamonds were set on an azure background and surrounded by tiny gold stars each in turn ringed by a halo of silver...Coming closer, he could see another pattern beneath, stamped in outline onto the paper itself: hexagons contained within octagons contained within circles, which were themselves woven of figure eights, each figure only an inch wide, the stamp repeated a thousand times over. Moving from background to foreground and back, his eyes roved up and down, left and right, searching in vain for a place to rest, for something to comprehend or analyze, but he could find nothing, no larger, central figure or meaning, forcing him eventually to give up and simply let the pattern enter him unconceptualized, the whole ungrasped, which strangely enough, after a few moments, produced an oddly pleasurable sensation, a kind of relief from the responsibility to understand, at which point he moved in a step closer losing all lateral perspective, as when he'd lost himself in the endless houndstooth check of his father's overcoat as he was carried half asleep from the backseat of the car up to his bedroom as a boy, pressed against that endless repetition. the sudden memory of which he now condemned as sentimental. Thus covering self-pity in self-punishment, both of them equally false, both of them walls thrown up to block the view of something hopelessly vaster.


David Nolan (dsc73277) 2 July 2010 at 20:16  

I thought that Alex Preston's debut novel "This Bleeding City" would take some beating when it came to exploring the recent shocks to the global financial system in fictional form. It sounds as though Union Atlantic might be a contender.

William Rycroft 3 July 2010 at 00:33  

I really must read Alex's book, especially as he was kind enough to leave some comments here recently. I guess I wasn't really that interested in reading a fictional account of the fallout from the financial crisis if I'm honest, I'm too busy living it! What I loved about Union Atlantic is that it isn't so much about the fallout but about the behaviour that caused the crisis. And it isn't really about that either, but much more about the characters and a storyline which is about possession, power and personal relations.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP