Adam Haslettt talks about the 'uncanny' coincidences in Union Atlantic, his fictional study of greed which foreshadowed the financial crisis long before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
The financial crisis has been responsible for many things, but until now good fiction set in the maelstrom has not been one of them. That's hardly surprising. Not only is the true story fascinating in itself, but sympathy for the people involved is in short supply. One ex-banker turned writer told me recently that setting a novel in that high-stakes world and expecting people to empathise with the protagonist was almost impossible. "The thing is," he said, "bankers are generally awful people."
And Doug Fanning, the protagonist of Adam Haslett's excellent debut novel Union Atlantic, certainly seems an awful person. An aggressive ex-Navy officer, he turns the Boston bank that lends the book its title into a major American financial success story. But the deals he strikes operate at the very limits of legality and, in the end, come back to haunt him. Doug has an affair with his secretary and treats a young lover with despicable disdain. And in the crucial phases of the book, he tramples all over the memories of his neighbour and retired schoolteacher Charlotte when he builds a mansion on beautiful Massachusetts land she believes is rightfully hers.
"No, he doesn't sound particularly nice, does he?" laughs Haslett when I reel off Doug's long list of misdemeanours. "His way of conducting relationships and being intimate with people is through power. But to cast this book as a tale of good versus evil, of Charlotte versus Doug, is not how I thought of it at all. The task for me was to be as far inside his head as I possibly could without judging him. He's turned out that way for a reason, because anger is the dominant emotion in him. I want people to try and understand why he does what he does."
The 39-year-old Haslett has a raft of well-regarded short stories behind him, and his 2002 collection You Are Not a Stranger Here was a Pulitzer finalist. So a novel was the logical, eagerly awaited next step. However, suggestions that Union Atlantic was planned to coincide with the financial crisis are wide of the mark. It might feel impeccably timely, but in fact the novel is set in 2002, and Haslett spent five years working on it. As he sits in the conservatory of a quiet Bloomsbury hotel in London, he can't quite believe how much life has mirrored his art.
"I finished the book literally the week Lehman Brothers collapsed, in September 2008," he says, still shaking his head at coincidences that increasingly felt like premonitions. "As the crisis unfolded, I would read the news accounts with utter disbelief; there was one point where all the bankers met at the Federal Reserve in New York and I was thinking, 'Yep, I wrote that scene a year ago.' "Of course, the crisis that happens to Doug and Union Atlantic in the book isn't one that went all the way, like the real one did. But, well, it's uncanny how much has come true. And it's a mixed blessing, too; it's obviously brought me welcome attention and publicity, and previously I'd spent a lot of time worrying about whether people would actually know what the Federal Reserve was. That was solved by history. But the problem is, as much as I feel some people would like it to be so, it's not really a book about the financial crisis or the technicalities of bad mortgage lending. For me, the financial world was actually just a setting to explore lots of other things: masculinity, anger, how finance and militarism run together, and where American culture is going."
For which we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Haslett trusts that his readers will be just about as interested in the banking system as he is, which means only very rarely are there lengthy explanatory paragraphs of how trading floors work. For the most part, Union Atlantic attempts to investigate how the big financial events Doug is involved with affect the people who live in the small towns of Massachusetts.
So when the author tells me inspiration first came from a relatively dry, non-fiction book on the Federal Reserve, I'm almost incredulous. It doesn't feel, in the way that it garners genuine feeling for its many characters, that kind of scholarly work at all. "But it was fascinating," Haslett protests. "The Federal Reserve is an unelected branch of government setting interest rates and so on, which has a massive effect on people's lives without them knowing it. It's very difficult for people - and I include myself in this - to imagine how their personal lives are affected by these enormous, abstract systems. So that's one thing a book - we're talking about my book here, but it's not exclusive to Union Atlantic - can do: provide an imaginative middle ground where you can make these connections."
Union Atlantic is certainly a book about connections. Charlotte's brother is, unknown to Doug, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, which in the end will make its judgment on Doug's wilfully risky attitude to the markets. Doug's lover is Charlotte's pupil. So it's not just the disputed, sprawling mansion that brings these two strong-willed characters together to argue the toss about the way they feel society should function. Their arguments are illuminating - Charlotte cast as the liberal public servant and Doug not at all troubled by the power of money - but gradually, it becomes clear that they're more alike than they'd care to admit; both absolutists committed to their views.
"The consequences of a life lived with that kind of unremitting, furious conviction are very interesting to me," says Haslett. "The idea of Doug's anger bears repeating; I genuinely believe this very masculine emotion characterises both militarism and high finance, which have been the dominant forces in American culture over the last 10 years. It's not a coincidence that the war in Iraq and the period of instability after 9/11 all took place when finance became so detached from the real world. It's all about power from a distance. You push the button and launch the missile. You push the button and make a multi-million dollar sale."
It's to Haslett's credit that he juggles all these topics in the book with such aplomb, but spending an afternoon with him, I realise it's just how he organises every conversation. An innocuous question about short-story writing suddenly broadens into how he believes the notion of the Great American Novel is representative of a national self-consciousness. I ask why he wanted to write about the Bush administration, and before long he's mourning Obama's "missed opportunity" to take a stronger hand in his first few months. When it comes to his country, he's such a deep thinker - he admits to me he's a "political junkie" - that I go away struck by how he's still able to write about it with such a light touch, especially when dealing with September 11, 2001. The World Trade Center attacks are approached in a surprisingly matter-of-fact style in Union Atlantic.
"Well, despite the hundreds of books and thousands of hours of coverage on the military and security responses to 9/11, it is odd how much of life continues as it is," he explains. "For most people, it's news and psychology isn't it? It hasn't directly affected them." In fact, responses to the events of 2001 provide some of the comic turns in the book. The head of the Union Atlantic organisation holds a garden party, and so fearful are the monied classes of terrorist attacks that security is ridiculously over the top. The party turns into a farce.
"I enjoyed writing that," he smiles. "I was living near Wall Street post-9/11, two blocks away from Ground Zero. And yet you'd hear stories of moms in Indiana worried some extremist was going to bomb a soccer field in the middle of nowhere. That strange paranoia landed in the oddest places. I definitely wanted to send some of that up." So despite the anger, despite the sense that two versions of America are crashing head on, Union Atlantic is a very enjoyable book - none more so than when Charlotte argues inside her head with two dogs who speak back to her in the voices of the 18th-century Puritan preacher Cotton Mather and Malcolm X, the militant American black rights campaigner who was assassinated in 1965. Like most of the voices in the book, from the infatuated teenager to the bank regulator, Haslett gets them spot on.
"It's one of the great pleasures of writing fiction, to be utterly, purely imaginative," he says. "Tackling the larger issues is important, but I had to do it through the individuals involved. I always begin with people." Even if, like Doug, they are awful people.