Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's A Rich Man's World

This appeared in the latest issue of Time Out Mumbai


The fall of Lehman Brothers, the fraudulence of Enron, the subprime crisis: these and more have dominated recent headlines as well as our imaginations. Perhaps in no other time has so much notional wealth in the hands of so few meant downturns in the lives of so many. It’s this that Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic takes as its subject.

Set in the early years of this decade, this is the tale of the Blackberry-wielding Doug, mid-thirties banker with Boston’s Union Atlantic Bank. A defalcation by a trader in Hong Kong, and Doug’s part in the ensuing scenario, leads to an unraveling of his carefully created life. The bank’s wily chairman apart, Doug also has to battle with Charlotte, retired teacher and campaigner against the large mansion Doug has erected.

The shadow of The Great Gatsby hangs heavy over the novel, and not just because of narcissism and casual amorality. There’s the lavish party – fireworks included – thrown by the bank’s chairman and his wife; at another point, a to-be lover creeps into Doug’s bedroom and is entranced by a wardrobe-full of shirts, suits and shoes.

Charlotte’s mental instability – she imagines her pet dogs talking to her, one Puritan, the other Black – reminds one of the troubled characters in Haslett’s earlier collection, You Are Not A Stranger Here. There is empathy in her portrayal as well as in those of other characters such as the Doug-besotted Nate and his stoner friends.

Haslett’s prose is both efficient and evocative, and he’s particularly good in capturing the alchemical properties of the world of finance: “… his churning mind turned lucid and through it power flowed as frictionless as money down a fibre-optic line, the resistance of the physical world reduced to the vanishing point.”

 Because of these strengths, one tends to overlook the plot contrivance of Charlotte’s brother being head of the Federal Reserve and thus having to deal with Doug, too. This nuanced novel, then, is a worthy companion piece to recent non-fiction such as Michael Lewis’ The Big Short or Joseph Stieglitz’s Freefall.

No comments: