The Accidental Prophet

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The writer Adam Haslett—lean, tall, and elegantly balding—points his Anglo-Saxon nose up toward the faux-Florentine roof of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He seems to be looking for the window from which the moral and purposeful Henry Graves, the very un-Geithner-like and fictional New York Fed president in Haslett’s first novel, Union Atlantic, gazes down at harried Wall Street commuters, a swarm of tiny engines driving the tenuous economy over which he has inscrutable power. “I was fascinated by someone with a God’s-eye view of the material world,” says Haslett. He had decided to imagine himself inside the Fed’s massive, impregnable doors ten years ago, before he went to Yale Law School and before he wrote a collection of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, that earned Haslett a 2003 Pulitzer nomination and a plug from his former teacher at Swarthmore, Jonathan Franzen. Haslett finished his law degree soon after his book unexpectedly hit the best-seller list, but he has never practiced.

Union Atlantic is an unlikely follow-up to those intensely insular stories. The new novel, which deftly interweaves harrowing plot twists and tragic character studies, also manages to probe the twin fatal obsessions of the aughts: military hubris and a manic banking spree untethered from any sense of public accountability. But the biggest shock came the week Haslett finished the book, which was also the week Lehman Brothers collapsed. For years he had asked himself, “Is anybody gonna know what the Fed is, and is anybody gonna care?” Not only do we know and care, but Union’s plot—a driven but tortured banker’s exploitation of the eroding boundaries between banking and speculation—foretold the disaster that, along with September 11, bookended our most dispiriting time since Vietnam and Watergate. There’s even—spoiler alert—a bailout.

An explorer of mental crisis who somehow became a prophet of financial ruin, Haslett (who resisted the urge to change anything in Union post-bailouts) had mixed feelings about the timing. “It was the experience of the uncanny,” he says, settling on a bench overlooking the Statue of Liberty. He was happy to be relevant but worried that finance fatigue would have set in by 2010. Yet today’s readers, digging out from an avalanche of How-It-Happened chronicles, are probably ready for what Union Atlantic actually is—not an economic primer but a psychological portrait, featuring America as a bipolar patient off its meds. And only Haslett could have drawn it quite this way, because his novel owes as much to the author’s own tumultuous history as it does to the delusions of Alan Greenspan.

“Would that it were a decision,” says Haslett when asked why he has more or less transplanted a character from one of his stories into the novel: a gay teenage boy who, having lost a mentally ill parent to suicide, falls into a debasing relationship. “I guess writers have certain preoccupations, and that’s part of my territory, which is unchosen,” says the author, who lives with his partner in Brooklyn. “I joked with my agent that I wouldn’t have to write a coming-of-age novel because I’d slipped one into this.”

Much of Union Atlantic covers a battle between a retired and delusional schoolteacher (her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X) and the aforementioned banker, whose McMansion sits on land the teacher’s family bequeathed to the fictional town of Finden. It’s the kind of ancient New England locale where very old money and new wealth fight it out, just as they do in Kingston and Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Haslett grew up. The two worlds clashed even within his own family, and with more-devastating results. His mother, a French teacher, could trace her ancestry back to the Pilgrims. His father was a British venture capitalist “who succeeded in arranging for other people to make a lot of money but never did make much himself.” In 1980, he moved his family to England, failed spectacularly, and succumbed further to severe bipolar disorder. A few years later, they returned to Massachusetts; shortly afterward, Haslett’s father committed suicide, leaving the family without life insurance.

Two years ago, Haslett’s older brother, Tim, a prolific record collector, music critic, and graduate student, died, reportedly of a medication mishap. Haslett won’t discuss it, saying it doesn’t have a bearing on this book. But he won’t deny that his writing draws on private pain. He paraphrases James Baldwin on the topic: “Every artist must vomit the anguish up. All of it, the literal and the fanciful.” Still, he was surprised when journalists harped on the depressing themes in Stranger, nine stories that are mainly about mental illness and suicidal ideation. “That phrase [‘mental illness’] is never used in the book,” he says, “and the task for me was simply to take the reader into characters’ minds and let them dwell there. We are constantly bombarded by images of other people’s pain, but we’re rarely asked to dwell.”

Amity Gaige, a writer and close friend who met him at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says that “the trauma of his youth in particular—it seems like such a given between us. We’re both grateful that we’re able to process life through writing, and we also agree that it doesn’t cure you. That’s something a young writer doesn’t understand.”

Haslett, who just turned 39, considers himself “more outward-looking” than he once was. He aims to combine the social concerns of the nineteenth-century novel with the psychological intensity of the Modernists. His ambition—a very different one from that of a caricaturist like Tom Wolfe—shows in Union Atlantic. From the earnest Fed president to the lost teen, the hallucinating teacher to the asshole banker, “all of the characters in the book are trying to find a kind of intimacy.” The financial and military messes of the aughts are not so much explained as felt.

Leave it to Franzen to decipher the way in which his acolyte tries to answer the harder questions, whether personal or political: “We’ve always talked about literature’s relation to politics and to therapy—how to keep writing in a culture that offers simpler and more direct ‘treatments’ of the ancient tragic ache. Becoming a writer is a way of becoming more fully a person. A way of surviving.”

Union Atlantic
By Adam Haslett.
Nan A. Talese.

The Accidental Prophet