Adam Haslett, Lionel Shriver, and the Bygone Age of Order

Much of the praise directed toward Adam Haslett‘s debut novel, Union Atlantic, is focused on how timely it is. One of its lead characters, Doug Fanning, is an investment banker who takes advantage of increasingly slack government financial regulation to make greedy, high-risk bets on the foreign market. It’s not a novel about credit default swaps, which would actually be “timely.” But a work of fiction about investment banks published when investment banks are undergoing a public scourging has been enough to qualify it as on-the-news. “Union Atlantic pulls us into our very own societal and financial nightmare,” as USA Today put it.

That makes it seem a little like Haslett is trying to work up some populist outrage in the book, which he isn’t. The tone of Union Atlantic is too detached for that, and while Haslett makes the folly of Fanning’s enterprise abundantly clear, his prose is mainly concerned with capturing the sheer inevitability of bankers’ greed. Haslett does offer more than a few potent sentences about how corporations have abused the American citizenry. The best one arrives early on: “What had the government become these days but the poorly advertised fire sale of the public interest?” But the curious thing about Union Atlantic is that it’s structured not just to sap the power of rallying cries like that, but shades toward arguing against them.

The main reason for that is embodied in the character who ponders that “fire sale” line: Charlotte Graves, the woman angry at the McMansion that Fanning has built next to hers. Charlotte is an aging former teacher, pushed out of her job for agitating about the government a little too fervently, and she’s retreated into a solitary life with her two dogs. When a high-school student appears at her door for some tutoring in American history, Haslett looks at Charlotte from the boy’s point of view, and what she looks like is a poor woman snowed in by stacks of papers and books, rambling about the public trust and taxation law—the civics teacher as Miss Havisham:

From an ancient wingback chair losing feathers through the frayed fabric of its cushion, Nate took in the remarkable state of the room. Every surface from the side tables to the mantlepiece and a good portion of the floor was covered in paper: journals, newspapers, magazines, manila folders overflowing with yellowed documents, the piles adorned with everything from coffee mugs to used plates to stray articles of clothing—red wool gloves, a knitted scarf. And everywhere he looked, books: hardbacks, paperbacks, reference volumes, ancient leather-bound spines with peeling gold lettering, atlases, books of art and photography, biographies, novels, histories, some splayed open, others shut over smaller volumes, the overstuffed bookcases themselves standing against the walls like sagging monuments to some bygone age of order, entirely insufficient now to contain this sea of printed matter.

In time, Charlotte’s increasing separation from contemporary attitudes about government—which are unconcerned with her fusty notions of government’s responsibility to the people—will make her increasingly unhinged. Her two dogs speak to her in the increasingly oppressive voices of Malcolm X and Cotton Mather, and though her investment-banker neighbor doesn’t come off especially well, Charlotte comes off as worse. To be a greedy banker is to be a fool, Haslett argues, but to be a good citizen is to be a nutjob.

Haslett isn’t alone in pursuing this line of thinking. Lionel Shriver‘s new novel, So Much for That, is also “timely”: It centers on Shep Knacker, a well-meaning working stiff whose hopes to retire early on a remote island are wrecked when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, the treatments for which rapidly drain his savings. To provide a sounding board for Shep (and comic relief for the reader), Shriver introduces Shep’s friend Jackson, who’s keeping a running list of funny titles for books that would expose just how thoroughly the U.S. government is taking advantage of the people (CHUMPS: How Behind Our Backs a Bunch of Bums and Bamboozlers Turned America Into a Country Where We Can’t Do Anything or Earn Anything or Say Anything When It Use to Be a Damned Nice Place to Live). “Citizenship as an aspiration was pathetic,” Jackson thinks, but he recognizes that there was once a time when it wasn’t.

Not unlike Union Atlantic‘s Charlotte, Jackson is punished for clinging to the notion that institutions are treating people worse. As the novel moves on, he shifts from conjuring up clever book titles to browbeating his children about America’s formerly rigorous education system and exasperating his wife by rattling off a laundry list of tax abuses:

“Federal unemployment tax, fishing license tax, food license tax, fuel permit tax, gasoline tax, hunting license tax, inheritance tax, inventory tax, IRS interest charges tax (that’s tax on tax), IRS penalties tax (more tax on tax), liquor tax, luxury tax—”

“Honey, that’s enough,” said Carol.

“Marriage license tax, Medicare tax, property tax—”

“Sweetie, we get the picture. Would you please give it a rest?”

“Road usage tax, recreational vehicle tax, sales tax, state income tax—”

“If you don’t shut up right now—!”

“School tax, service charge tax, Social Security tax—”

“—I swear I will drive right out of here without you!”

“Look, pumpkin, hang on one minute, would you? State unemployment tax, telephone federal excise tax—”

This time it was Carol who hit the table, with the full flat of her hand, and it was loud. “What are you so mad about, Jackson? Really? What is so terrible about your life?”

Underlying all this is Jackson’s disastrous decision to undergo penis enlargement surgery. That tactic not only makes for some bracing, difficult scenes—Shriver isn’t the best novelist working today, but she’s among the nerviest—but tidily suggests that caring about government not only saps your sense of virility but makes you a moron to boot.

Yes, Union Atlantic and So Much for That are “timely,” and at a time when fiction has a tough time in the marketplace it’s understandable that their publishers would push that angle. But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant. I suspect that what readers will gravitate to in these novels 10, 20, 50 years from now aren’t how they captured investment banking and healthcare as it existed in the early 21st century, but how they reflected a time when people were deeply anxious about what it meant to be a responsible citizen. And they’ll notice that novelists avoided addressing that anxiety head-on by making responsible citizens residents not so much of America but of crazytown.

4 thoughts on “Adam Haslett, Lionel Shriver, and the Bygone Age of Order

  1. I had the same awkward reading experience that you did with the Shriver novel — in part for this very reason. The extremely strange reactionary stance against anti-authoritarian autodidacts (taken with its failure to address solipsism in anything more than cartoonish terms) seemed out of place in a novel that was attempting to demonstrate (with an expanse that was out-of-step with the straightforward issue) how anyone could be victimized by the health care system. I also wouldn’t characterize Knacker as a “working stiff.” He has money and it sifts through his hands like sand. His ultimate choice near the end felt just as perfunctory to me as the author desperately finding a way to wrap up an unwieldy and ultimately unconvincing novel.

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