Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thoughts on Union Atlantic

Such is the book scene where important new books in literature can be almost completely overlooked. Such is the case with Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic.

Released in 2009, it may be among the first novels to try and make comprehensive sense of the United States in the early years of the 21st Century, juggling the aftermath of 9/11, the emerging banking scandals, the last embers of pre-1960s mentalities, the homosexual in regular society, youth culture absorbing New Age habits...The list goes on. This is Haslett's first book (after a collection of short stories), and it shows, but he bears remarkable promise for the future.

The main character is a veteran of the 1980s military campaigns in the Middle East, who is trying to improve his life through a single-minded devotion to his own self-belief, striking up convenient associations (which is perhaps the main theme of the story, and how convenience can so easily become inconvenient) that allow him to build a financial empire. He builds a mansion next door to a spinster who is equally convinced that her comprehensive understanding of the past can still have meaning in the present. Both, as the book jacket explains, become involved with a high school senior trapped by forces he finds difficult to control, from peer pressure to sexual impulses, headed to a destiny that will either reflect the better patterns exhibited by his mentor figures, or the worse.

Clearly, it's all allegory, but rarely does an author feel confident enough to blend so many thoughts together (there's also a metaphorical sub-story about a pair of dogs who claim the personas of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X, in case you need to have anything cleared up for you), and it's exactly that kind of ambition that I like to champion. Essentially, Haslett is arguing his case as the most important American literary voice of his day. Another book like this, written with more confidence, will make that argument for him.

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