Dozens of narratives have documented the financial crisis, telling in intricate detail the tales of imploding banks, greedy traders, and frantic regulators. But it generally takes longer for fiction writers to sink their teeth into current affairs. In Union Atlantic, novelist Adam Haslett offers a story that seems ripped from the headlines: an overly aggressive banker, fishy accounting, and a central character who is the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Gross spoke with Haslett. A podcast of their conversation can be heard here.
Gross: How did you decide to have one of your characters be the president of the New York Fed, of all things?
Haslett: About 10 years ago, I started reading more of the business pages, around the time of the Asian financial crisis and the collapse of Long Term Capital Management. And I got the sense of the New York Fed as an institution that lived between government and the markets, and that the people who worked there had a God's-eye view of how the markets were functioning. So it struck me that from a fiction writer's point of view, it would be interesting to put someone right in that position.
Henry Graves is sort of in the middle of the central conflicts in the story.
Henry Graves is the president of the New York Fed. His sister, Charlotte, is a retired teacher living in a town west of Boston. She's living in an old, crumbling family house. And the guy who just built the house opposite of hers is a young guy named Doug Fanning who works in Union Atlantic. He is an aggressive young banker, and is the No. 2 at a bank that is sort of like Bank of America, a financial supermarket that went from regional power to a global power in the last 20 years.
This book is very much about the clash between old and new money, between old and new Wall Street. And that's a story that is very New York–centric. This story could have played out in Greenwich or any of the suburbs of Long Island. But it's set in the suburbs of Boston, in the fictional town of Finden. Why?
The simple answer is that I grew up in Massachusetts, so it's the landscape that's natural to me. And the conflict between the old-money establishment and the people who resent that kind of snobbery is pretty keen. Finden is sort of the combination of the two towns where I grew up.
This conflict between Charlotte, this old-school WASP schoolteacher who is losing her status, and Doug Fanning, the former soldier who becomes an aggressive young banker—is it a class issue that divides them?
I think it's got a lot of dimensions. Charlotte sees it in class terms. Fanning has come back to the town, as you said, where his mother cleaned houses, so he's definitely got a sort of angry edge to building the house there and proving something to people. I think it's also more broadly a conflict between the militarism and hypercapitalism of the last 10 years and this liberal humanist. Charlotte believes in art and philosophy and history.
There's also a conflict between Fanning and Jeffrey Holland, the CEO of Union Atlantic.
Holland is the guy who the board of Union Atlantic brought to make deals and acquisitions. So he's the corporate politician. And what Holland needs is someone he can go to for direct action. When I was writing this, I spent a lot of time thinking of Holland as one of the main characters, and I just thought to myself that because he's risen that far, he's actually not the most interesting guy. The No. 2–ranked person is the more interesting character, in a way, because he's got the hand on the machinery a bit more, and his responsibility is to give deniability to the guy upstairs who manages everybody downstairs.
I don't want to give too much away, but there are financial complications that call Henry Graves, president of the New York Fed, into action. I had a difficult time deciding if he is the hero of this, someone we should be admiring, or someone we should be annoyed at. He is very invested in the system. He's not a banker by training or temperament, but he really seems to enjoy the trappings of his job. And when things start to go bad, he doesn't seem as concerned about how it happened or who was responsible as he is about how to protect the system.
As a novelist my job is different from a nonfiction writer. My goal in the end is not to judge people. I think he is caught in precisely the position that the Fed found itself in last fall. He believes that you have to keep money flowing, the system is basically sound, and he doesn't want to reward bad actors. There's also a line where he says that the liberals never think about what would happen if we just let the whole thing go. He's a classic central banker.
This reads in many ways like a novel that was written after the failure of Lehman Brothers.
Well, in fact, it was 10 years ago that I first wrote a scene of Henry Graves, and I finished the book the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was an uncanny experience because as soon as I started reading about all these meetings going on with the New York Fed between these bankers and Tim Geithner [then the New York Fed's president], I thought to myself, "I wrote that scene about a year ago."
What do you think has changed in the Findens of the world? Since the financial crisis, we've seen the downfall of a lot of the people who were building big houses, throwing big parties, and garnering headlines. On the one hand, it has to be satisfying to some of the old-school people like Charlotte Graves. On the other hand, their home values are going down and their property taxes are going up.
I think like any community, my fictional one is a complicated one with a lot of different calibrations. But overall, I think the heightened insecurity and anxiety is really tangible across the board. We all thought we were really anxious after 9/11, and a lot of us were. But when a lot of people are losing their jobs, and your neighbors are moving away, it adds to it.