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All the Sad Young Bankers

By (February 1, 2010) No Comment

Union Atlantic

By Adam Haslett
Doubleday, 2010

The Privileges

By Jonathan Dee
Random House, 2010

Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic is a surprisingly quiet novel given that its subject is the potential downfall of Western civilization. The book follows Doug Fanning, a chief strategist for the Boston-based financial conglomerate of the novel’s title. Fanning is the deputy to the company’s genial public face, its CEO Jeffrey Holland. Because Holland needs to appear ignorant of any malfeasance, Fanning has almost complete autonomy to proceed on Union Atlantic’s behalf. In order to expand their influence into investment banking, for instance, Fanning illegally acquires smaller investment firms under the correct expectation that their own lobbying combined with wider corporate pressure will lead congress to repeal the regulations against such acquisitions. When an international crisis precipitates a drop in stock prices, Fanning creates a corporation that only exists to borrow money from the commercial arm of Union Atlantic and loan money to the investment arm, thereby squirming past existent regulation to boost investor confidence with the illusion of high quarterly earnings. An insider tip (from the drunken girlfriend of a member of the Japanese Ministry of Finance) helps Fanning make huge profits investing in the Japanese economy – but it’s the mishandling of this bet that moves Haslett’s plot, as it threatens to topple the financial giant and so devastate the American economy.

Haslett is exceptionally intelligent, and his presentation of these jargon-filled dealings possesses a dossier-like technicality that makes the whole appalling scope of the crimes cogent and believable. The cynical plotting of Fanning, his own dirty-working deputy, a trader named McTeague, and various other colluders at Union Atlantic, sometimes remind you of a semi-legitimate mafia family and sometimes of Nixon’s plumbers. But recent events inspire an even darker interpretation. In the past year, American taxpayers have been obliged to subsidize financial corporations that, through corruption and mismanagement, triggered a nationwide recession and a wave of unemployment that has not yet receded (which means that these companies were underwritten by many people they caused to be laid off). So the image of a few arrogant power players manipulating billions of dollars of investments makes you think not of graft but of domestic terrorism. Such people are as capable of crippling the country’s infrastructure as a group of religious zealots with suitcase bombs.

Which is why the listless, almost benumbed tone of Union Atlantic is so incongruous with its subject. All the attitude, the viciousness, the tragedy, even the reckless excitement of such high-stakes ambition and ruthlessness is engulfed in the black hole of Doug Fanning’s personality. Haslett has made him almost entirely soulless. Since his disaffected childhood and stint in the Army, in which he was part of an accidental attack on Iranian civilians during the Gulf War, life has been a matter of making advantageous deals. His relationships are perfunctory, “an understanding between the two of them as individual actors,” in the small-print legalese in which Fanning thinks about everything. His house is a big hideous McMansion with no furniture (a friend pointed out that this image was first used in the film Boiler Room, in which a group of young stockbrokers hang out in an enormous house that has nothing but a couch and a big-screen TV showing Wall Street). His work satisfies him when it makes him feel like “the living wonder of the most advanced machine … freed of all organic hindrance to glide on the plane of pure efficiency.” Midway through the book he experiences “something peculiar, a feeling of sorts.”

Charlotte Graves, the second principal (as the banks would put it) in Union Atlantic, provides us with the diagnosis: she sees “the violence simmering numbly” in Fanning’s eyes. Charlotte, a crusty retired history teacher, is Fanning’s neighbor and is suing the township to have his house razed from the land that used to belong to her family. She is thus the novel’s hectoring conscience, a moralizing Nemesis to the amorally virulent Fanning (Charlotte’s brother, in a stretched coincidence, is the head of the New York Federal Reserve trying to discover Fanning’s abuses). Charlotte is an eloquent ranter and gives the novel its few moments of spite-fueled energy, including a delicious comeuppance in the courthouse. But she too, ultimately, contributes to the strangely somnolent mood of Union Atlantic. Her interior monologues seem to channel a voice that is well over a century old:

Toward the end of her years at the school, even her better students had become mere harvesters of fact, unwilling to be transformed by what they might learn. They were closed to that higher ambiguity that came only from observing at close range a person compelled by knowledge, someone who might show by example how one’s first self, illiberally imposed, could be given up in favor of the chosen course.

Adam Haslett

I thought at first that Haslett must have been reading Henry James when he wrote these lines, but I think now the source is something older and sterner, the essays of James Russell Lowell perhaps, or the stories of Hawthorne. Charlotte is not simply compelled by noble anachronisms—she is a certifiably insane woman in their thrall. She has contentious philosophical arguments with her dogs, one of whom wants her to burn down Fanning’s house.

She’s therefore as constrained by her character as her rival is; both seem trapped in allegorical amber. Indeed, they increasingly feel less like real people than the modern varieties of Puritan symbolism that Henry Adams liked so much—the Automaton and the Harpy, say. I had not been aware of Haslett’s puritanical streak from his story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, but its medicinal flavor coats Union Atlantic. Such old New England austerity is like iodine—a few drops are wondrously purifying but too much infuses everything with a sour taste. Haslett’s disapprobation of the slick emptiness of State Street gives a lugubrious, even resigned tenor to the satire with which he tries to send up the mega-rich and their excesses.

For all its skill and superb intelligence, then, Union Atlantic is a brooding, bloodless novel. The more Haslett has studied his subject, the more disconsolate it seems to have made him. This is a book of praiseworthy scope and vision, and yet to some extent it marks another depressing victory for the Doug Fannings of the world, whose blank mechanical ambitions seem to have overwhelmed even the spirit of their creator.

In his novel The Privileges, Jonathan Dee creates—and then must cope with—a character very similar to Fanning in his untrammeled ambition and near complete lack of conscience. This is the self-made millionaire Adam Morey, who beats a path of investment fraud to become one of the most prominent philanthropists in the country.

Whereas Union Atlantic begins (excluding the brief prologue) at the acme of Fanning’s mercenary power, The Privileges opens when Adam is 22, a handsome, promising college grad who’s hours from marrying his beautiful girlfriend Cynthia. By starting with the joyous, idiotic bacchanalia of the wedding, and then following Adam and Cynthia through the (relatively) lean years of early parenthood, The Privileges avoids any sense of pervasive disillusion and is in many ways a more cunningly damning portrait of high finance than the morality play of Union Atlantic. Dee takes a bemusedly objective view of his characters, and we see how they gradually snowball toward lives of corrupt and heedless (if outwardly attractive) entitlement.

That transformation is illuminating and often funny. The Moreys are good-looking and spoiled, and nurture in one another an implicit contempt of everyone else in the whole world. But for half the book they are obliged to toil in underling obscurity. Their lives, of thankless business trips and fruitless searches for good babysitters, are realistically captured. Adam is the protégé in a private equity firm, and must ingratiate himself to his extravagantly rich and paternalistic boss (who very much resembles the glad-handing CEO at Union Atlantic). As for Cynthia, though she’s a dutiful and loving mother to their children Jonas and April, she’s “fallen into the underworld of women with nothing special to do”:

Like those moms she despised, the ones you made small talk with while you waited for your kid to find his shoes after a playdate at their Versailles-like apartments, who had live-in help and no real responsibilities and yet all they did was complain about how they never had a moment to themselves. But what filled Cynthia’s days? She was at the gym five mornings a week now; Adam kept telling her she looked hotter than she ever had in her life, which was probably true, but maybe the whole routine there wasn’t even about that, maybe it was about something else entirely. She had volunteered, again, to head the silent-auction committee for April’s grade and for Jonas’s too, even though she took no pleasure in it because of the proximity it forced her into with women whom she imagined were nothing like her. She had a rule about not drinking before five. She never broke it, but why was it there at all?

You can see the layer of unspoken irony that’s always present in this novel: a privileged woman is complaining about associating with privileged people who complain all the time. But it’s that final befuddled question that is the key to understanding the Moreys. Cynthia doesn’t drink before five because of a tenuous obedience to forms, not due to any meaningful experience or deep-seated belief. The truth is, Dee keeps emphasizing, Cynthia and Adam have no beliefs at all. They know nothing of religion and the Bible verses pronounced at their wedding are only, as Dee puts it with jaded toleration, the “trappings of belief”; they feel revulsion for the beholdens their parents put on them; traditions of the past are insignificant, if not simply stupid. “The most highly evolved people,” Adam thinks, “were the ones for whom even yesterday did not exist.”

The one convention they do value is their own nuclear family (Dee knows the reader assumes Adam and Cynthia will eventually start cheating on each other, and he toys with that expectation to good effect)—everything else is open to their devices. So when Adam, who has a bright future as the “de facto number two” at his firm, asks himself why he shouldn’t game the system, he can think of literally no reason except timidity:

It wasn’t enough to trust in your future, you had to seize your future, pull it up out of the stream of time, and in doing so you separated yourself from the legions of pathetic, sullen yes-men who had faith in the world as a patrimony. That kind of meek belief in the ultimate justice of things was not in Adam’s makeup. He’d give their children everything too, risk anything for them. He knew what he was risking. But it was all a test of your fitness anyway. The noblest risks were the secret ones. Fortuna favet fortibus.

Adam commences an elaborate program of insider trading and offshore accounting and eventually becomes a tycoon; however, it’s at this point that the wind at the back of The Privileges dies down and the book loses its purpose. Dee elides Adam’s elevation from a run-of-the-mill Manhattan millionaire to a world-renowned multimillionaire, and it’s never clear how that rise happens (Haslett probably could have helped Dee on these details). The novel then comes down with a common case of non-endingitis. Dee seems to find Adam too vapid to spend any time on (he thinks about literally nothing but work and working out), and Cynthia has become the sort of snide, hypocritical woman with the “Versailles-like apartment” she had always covetously derided. The onus of the action falls on Jonas and April, who have a few bagatelle storylines about the different ways they struggle with being coddled rich kids. Then the book stops.

Nevertheless, The Privileges offers a convincing diagnosis of the modern gospel of wealth, in which a man’s success can be gauged by how little he’s hampered by cowardly scruples. Its similarities with Union Atlantic are striking enough to give us an idea of how we think about bankers in the 21st century. Both Doug Fanning and Adam Morey are estranged from their parents and unmoored from any sense of ancestry or heritage. Both are disdainful of sentimentality, of regret (one of Adam’s minions tells him he’s one of “those guys who are like missing a part of their brain or something. No conscience. No memory for losses.” Adam takes it as a compliment). Both are less interested in having money than in the process of gaining it. Fanning loves to flex the machine-like “precision and directedness of his will”; for Adam it’s all about “exercising that ability to repurpose information those around him were too timid or shortsighted to know what to do with.”

Such a character makes for a very different banking novel than we have seen in the past (although the prose compares favorably with those predecessors). These books are not about the deterioration of staunch conservative values by the invasion of wildly speculating interlopers (read: Jews) as in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now or Irène Némirovsky’s David Golder. They don’t rest on the meticulous observations of a venerable social class, like Louis Auchincloss’ portraits in brownstone (Auchincloss has just died at the age of 92, and it may be that he was the last witness of an old order). And there is nothing of the breadth of character—nor the depth of tragedy—found in Theodore Dreiser’s Nietzschean titans of finance.

Instead, the vision Haslett and Dee give us is of the power broker as a kind of pinnacle of Darwinian engineering, usefully shorn of any social, ethical, superstitious, or psychological complexity that might inhibit his ability to read and manipulate the market. He is less like a human than one of those computer programs that can beat grandmasters at chess.

I can’t attest to the accuracy of the depiction. Wall Street has always been protected from excess scrutiny because what actually happens on the trading floor or in security firms remains essentially opaque to most of the country, myself very much included. But if these really are the people handling the nation’s wealth, then we had better not expect either public opprobrium or federal regulation to stop them from cheating and stealing. On the contrary, cheating and stealing, with increasingly evolved shrewdness and daring, are basic functions of the profession. It’s a culture that’s swapped morality and honor for the stark standards of risk-assessment. Union Atlantic and The Privileges are the imperfect attempts to make art from that bargain.

Sam Sacks is an editor for Open Letters. His book reviews have also appeared in Commentary, The Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and The New York Press, among other places. He lives in New York.

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