Monday, April 25, 2011

'Union Atlantic': A tale of today

Originally printed March 24, 2010.

In his 2002 debut short story collection, "You Are Not a Stranger Here," Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Adam Haslett offered a sort of narrative ministerial grace to his dysfunctional and often mentally ill characters.

The finely crafted stories created a universe in which psychiatrists and philosophers serve as secular priests and in which empathetic suffering serves as an alternative to faith. Yet behind it all, Haslett's focus seemed less on the transubstantiation of anti-depressants and much more on the transformational power of experiencing an individual's unique story.

In his debut novel, "Union Atlantic," Haslett provides a similar collection of wounded and individualized characters, but his narrative attention is focused on diagnosing a more national dysfunction: the irrational exuberance that led to last decade's collapse of the U.S. economy.

The novel is not quite as satisfying as those earlier stories, but "Union Atlantic" still provides an engaging and frighteningly accurate portrait of our times. (Haslett's publisher reports that, shortly after Haslett turned in his manuscript in 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the house of cards described in the novel switched from fiction to frightening fact.)

"Union Atlantic" is more lyrically written than "Bonfire of the Vanities," but the various components don't quite always gel together enough to provide the same punch that Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel gave. And while the novel's more bombastic, socioeconomic analysis hangs together better than similar passages in Mark Twain's "Gilded Age: A Tale of Today" did, Haslett falls into some of the same melodramatic plot devices that made Twain's 1873 debut novel such a lumpy read.

Perhaps Haslett is just being being overly accurate in his depiction of the recent era of speculation and greed. The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani describes "Union Atlantic" as both "gripping and keenly observed" and as "strangely implausible and contrived." That mixture sounds like an apt description of an economic system that allowed far too many companies to become too big to fail.

Maybe the only way to capture the "blinded by hubris" financial regulatory culture Haslett describes is to include fictional elements that strain every readers' willing suspension of disbelief.

After all, we don't want a novel about the past 10 years to sweep us up into its imaginative world. We want something well-written that will teach us to tell the difference between economic fact and mere fiction.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be reached at 887-5435 or

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