Take it to the bank: The Pulitzer-nominated Adam Haslett gets intimate with the global banking meltdown

Praise has flown in from every quarter for the debut novel by the Pulitzer-nominated author Adam Haslett, one of the first fictional takes on the financial meltdown, viewed through the prism of a crisis of masculinity
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The Independent Culture

Being a modern novelist – it's a hard life. When I meet Adam Haslett in London to discuss his debut novel, Union Atlantic, he chats about his recent appearance at a cultural festival on the isle of Capri. It was, he says, a strange scene, mixing high life with high art. "Me and my partner were getting used to things we can't afford."

Haslett was reminded of a bygone era when artists were actively sought for their world views. "It dated back to a time when novelists were on the cutting-edge of politics. I'm a political junkie, but I feel like my purchase on politics is the same as everyone else."

It is an opportune remark. While Haslett was on Capri, the firebrand critic Lee Siegel pronounced the American novel dead (again). "My editor read the piece. He asked Siegel if he had read Union Atlantic and sent him a copy."

Praised by everyone from Jonathan Franzen to Kate Atkinson, Union Atlantic offers an impressive riposte to the latest obituary for American fiction – a claim the self-effacing Haslett dances around with wary circumlocution. "I did want to capture something about the larger structures we live in, which, to me, feel absent in a lot of contemporary literary writing. I remember Mailer writing that post-war American novelists had done a great job of teaching us about the little man, but less about the minds of the powerful."

Set a year or so after 9/11, Union Atlantic traces the ties that bind several seemingly remote characters. Charlotte Graves is a retired history teacher haunted by the suicide of her boyfriend almost half a century earlier, outraged by the intellectual wasteland of modern life and personally affronted by a new neighbour in her Massachusetts town of Finden.

That neighbour is Doug Fanning, a Gulf War veteran turned pitbull banker who erects a McMansion on land Charlotte believes is rightfully hers. Uniting the pair is Nate, a local teen who goes to Charlotte for tuition and Doug for sex, then love. Every bit as lost as his elders, Nate grieves his father's suicide, and the quiet desperation of his mother.

In conversation, Haslett is not unlike his book: a sensitive, serious and passionate man given to quoting from essays about King Lear and Ingmar Bergman. If he seems at home in England, that is because he is. Born to an English father, he spent four years of his childhood living in Oxfordshire. "In the States, I am a pessimist among optimists. In Britain, I'm suddenly an optimist in a land of pessimists. I am a little more comfortable with the former. For all its mythologies, there is something buoyant about the innocent American belief in good outcomes."

Good outcomes are not especially obvious in Union Atlantic, which has been hailed as one of the first fictional accounts of the recent financial apocalypse. Doug's bank, the titular Union Atlantic, is capsized by a rogue trader under his direct command. There is an oily oligarch, a morally conflicted whistle-blower and the president of the Federal Reserve bailing everyone out.

Haslett began the book in 2003, and completed it in the week Lehman Brothers fell. As a result, he has been hailed as a prophet. It is a role he quickly refutes. "Anyone who was paying attention – and lots of people in the world of international finance were – knew that the instability of the system wasn't a secret."

For Haslett, the real challenge was extracting a true and compelling plot from the base material. "Nobody can write a novel about interest-rate policy," he notes drily. Instead, he found himself drawn to what he describes as an informal world of high-stakes power.

"Central banking is like politics for adults. When there is really an issue, we go to the financiers. We have created a system where some issues are too important to allow people to vote about them. What does an independent central bank mean? It means it is independent from the democratic process and political branches. You make decisions based on economic theory regardless of who is the president or prime minister."

Haslett found this remote and unregulated exercise of power both intriguing and chilling. "I met this billionaire hedge-fund manager and asked if he was worried about the dollar. 'No,' he said, 'not as long as we've got the Seventh Fleet in the China Sea.' This guy clearly was deep in the system."

Haslett accepts that his timing has been fortuitous. Union Atlantic has gained attention he could not have dreamed about – even after his first book, a collection of short stories entitled You are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. "I wouldn't have got coverage in The Wall Street Journal if I hadn't written about the Fed."

At the same time, he worries that the book's topicality has swamped other issues. "It's like the foreground stole the whole picture," he says with slight weariness. "High finance was a context in which issues of power, masculinity and anonymity play themselves out. It was as though I had written a fictional exposé of a world that suddenly everyone was interested in."

Union Atlantic is striking for its portrayal of masculinity in crisis, peopled by men who are damaged, dead or missing in action: there are two suicides; a murdered brother; Doug's dead father; and veterans of the first Gulf War tortured by what they have seen and done. For Haslett, male desire, aggression and competitiveness are both shields and forms of identity.

"Each character seeks intimacy as a kind of salve against the inevitability of death or the challenge of facing up to life. But actual intimacy is often intolerable. Doug's only way of connecting is exercising power. An innocent like Nate wanders into his world and Doug perceives weakness and the chance of taking advantage of that weakness."

When I ask how personal Union Atlantic is, Haslett replies that the characters are him and not him. "I'm ambitious and Doug is ambition turned way up. I have a sense that the world's decaying and Charlotte is that turned way up."

He confesses that the romantic and innocent Nate is the most autobiographical character he has ever written, both exploring their sexuality in their teens; both coping with the tragic loss of their father.

The youngest of three children, Haslett grew up in Kingston, Massachusetts, the real-life basis for Finden. His family was well-off without being rich; intellectual, liberal and politically engaged.

His formative years were dominated by his father. A venture capitalist before such a profession was commonplace, he moved his family to England in 1980 when Haslett was 10. "It was a huge adjustment. I had been learning about George Washington every year. Suddenly I was faced with Latin and cricket."

In England, Haslett's father began exhibiting symptoms of manic depression. "His personality could be so powerful, could overcome any physical or social obstacle. The opposite of that is not getting out of bed."

As his father's illness worsened, his business failed and the family returned to America. "That was an enormous defeat for him. He fought a diagnosis. He didn't want to take Lithium. He got so much out of the up side that he didn't want to level out."

Two years later, he committed suicide. Haslett was 14. It took years to recover, to distinguish his father from his illness. "Suffering is not the only truth," he says now. "That took a while to learn. He was my father. I couldn't keep fidelity with such intense sadness and pain."

It is perhaps too tempting to see Haslett's struggles with grief as somehow redeemed by fiction. He quotes James Baldwin's famous motto about art as confession: "All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up." However, he prefers Baldwin's more measured statement (about Ingmar Bergman) that art requires an "arduous, delicate and disciplined self-exposure".

"I have to bring something of myself to my writing," he explains "But novels give people living in these complicated times a middle ground to imagine the whole.

Haslett says he is less concerned with personal catharsis than with forging a genuine relationship with his reader – an intimate communion of the sort so often denied his characters. Indeed, he argues, the measured demands and consolations of fiction have never been more urgently needed than in the present. Even Lee Siegel might be convinced.

"The power of literature is how it evokes emotion in a reader. Something has been transferred. But it takes time. My sister is working on a documentary about the French philosopher Simone Weil. She said: 'Attention is the rarest and truest form of generosity.' I want to believe that the future belongs to the slow."

The extract

Union Atlantic, By Adam Haslett Tuskar (Rock £12.99)

'...The larger the problem grew the more routine the management of it had become. What had started as a crisis had turned into a condition. And then, just as the condition surpassed any previously imaginable level of acceptable seriousness, it seemed to vanish altogether, as if too big to see'