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Review: Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

Like Chatroulette, Union Atlantic, Adam Haslett’s new novel, boasts the inevitability of a work mainlined to the zeitgeist. It seems to have been plucked fully formed from the ether; or if not from there, then at least from the airwaves of Fox News. Doug Fanning, the book’s whorl of selfishness, need, and greed, is today’s Gordon Gekko — a VP at Union Atlantic, a bank too big to fail that’s terrifyingly plausible. Haslett, whose first book of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for both the Pulitzer and the Man Booker Prize, isn’t so much interested in detailing the gold of this man’s crowns as he is in the crumbling of the soul behind his smile.

While in the Navy, Fanning read green blips on a radar screen in the Gulf War, clusters of pixels the coordinates of which, if properly interpreted, meant death for the ship, threat, plane, or people they represented. In civilian life, Fanning makes a killing reading similarly abstract numbers on a screen that mean, somewhere, dollars, yen, billions, profit, or loss. Haslett correctly identifies the long lonesome valley between the actual breathing thing and its signifier as the riverbed for modern tragedy. Fanning’s loosey-goosey liberty with pixels flickering across the screen is the catalyst for a tragedy — if not in four acts, then in four quarters.

The real joy of Union Atlantic, however, isn’t in its timeliness, but rather in its sense of time. Though the novel moves quickly to its end, Haslett’s narrative eye moves even faster. He captures the empty rapacity of Fanning as he wages a cold war against his old Whitman-esque neighbor Charlotte, whose decrepit ancestral home buttresses Fanning’s Greek Revival mansion. At 300 frames a second, Haslett teases out the cottonmouth longing and lust of young Nate, the boy Fanning uses to satiate his desire; and the solemn duty of Henry, the Fed chairman to whom Fanning’s boss turns for help.

And so the entire novel tumbles beautifully to its tragic conclusion, like a tackle shown in super slow motion. In Union Atlantic, Haslett, like the best traders Lehmann Brothers had to offer, has constructed a stunning mansion of cards, lovingly created and elegantly wrought. And watching it all fall down is the most sublime pleasure of all.

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