February 09, 2010
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic and Lorraine Adams’ The Room and the Chair are published today. Both are set in the Middle East and stateside. And although the two stories are in different styles and employ different narrative strategies, they both cast a clear light on what we are facing now and give us two angles of vision on the human condition. Like two mirrors, which is what novels are, I’m going to turn these books towards each other so that their reflections are multiplied. Adam is up first. A discussion of Lorraine’s book will be posted tomorrow. I’m very grateful to Lorraine and Adam for taking the time to do this. They’re lovely people. Okay…here’s Adam onUnion Atlantic:
DH: In a wonderful early scene of Union Atlantic, Charlotte first spies her new unwelcome neighbor, the rapacious banker, Doug Fanning, who has despoiled the surrounding woods by putting up his synthetic dream house.
Charlotte glances down at her dog, Sam’s, face…”his eyes a dark vacuum”. Then it seems like Sam quotes a clever parse on Cotton Mather.
There seems to be so much of the tradition of Concord and of the Puritan fathers in the background of your novel. I’ll pull a favorite line of Emerson’s out of my head: We have broken every law and stand among ruins.
Now, Union Atlantic is such an entertaining story that the reader doesn’t have to pay any attention to its New England roots. But why Cotton Mather? Also,,,Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson…and latterly, Henry James, all seem to reside as friendly ghosts in you novel. What do you feel about the great New England tradition that you seem to be writing in? What’s its connection to your story?
AH: Well, for one thing, I grew up in New England and lived in houses not unlike Charlotte’s, if perhaps slightly less decrepit ones, houses my mother’s family had lived in for ages, some going back to the seventeen hundreds, so the past weighed fairly heavily on the present for me as a child. In this sense, I’m clearly writing about home.
And it’s interesting that you should mention Thoreau and Emerson because while they are not writers that Charlotte remembers or quotes in the novel, it occurs to me now that she is, in fact, a New England transcendentalist of a sort. She’s a democratic idealist bewitched by nature and saddened by its depredation. Nonetheless, I can’t say that I was conscious of writing in a New England tradition, per se. James is certainly an important influence on me, most particularly in the depth and complexity of his attention to interior life in social settings, but by the time of his late work I think he’s more of an internationalist than a New England writer.
The choice of Cotton Mather was motivated by something different. One of the things I’m exploring in Charlotte is the conscience of the American liberal. I think that tradition is haunted by two forces: one, a self-abnegating zeal of religious origin, which Mather represents; and two, guilt over America’s original sin of slavery, a guilt honed in on by the voice of Malcolm X in the book. Charlotte’s entropic consciousness is, in a way, the liberal conscience decaying in front of the reader’s eyes.
DH: I admired one of the clever strategies that you employed to introduce the “dry” subject of finance into Union Atlantic: Henry, the president of the NY Fed and Charlotte’s brother, is given an abstracting turn of mind. So much so that he follows the AC process in his hotel room…tracing it from the smelting of metal in the machinery to the main AC unit on the hotel roof which he can hear faintly humming. Henry describes patterns of finance in the same meticulous way…ending in the ability of average joes like me to “create money” by using my credit card.
Henry can’t stop obsessing about patterns of force. His evil twin, Doug Fanning, the unscrupulous investment banker, can’t turn off his manipulation of people and the markets. Your novel is full of obsessed people managers framed by an imperial state. As a writer are you concerned only to describe this? Or did you intend to let loose some angry moral judgments? Okay…I’m being facetious… are you our Cotton Mather? Is that what novelists do?
AH: God, I hope I’m not Cotton Mather–he had fifteen children and thirteen of them died. Seriously, though, Mather’s excoriating rhetoric is contained within Charlotte’s head. The novel as a whole doesn’t adopt it. My interest is always to get as deeply as I can into the minds and spirits of the characters and let the readers empathize or judge as they will. Strange to say, I probably have more sympathy for Doug than a lot of readers might. I don’t share all of Charlotte’s disdain for him by any means. My hope is that in the end he’s more complex than being simply an evil character.
As for Henry and the way he brings to life the abstractions of finance, I was definitely making a conscious effort to write through and discover for myself what the psychology of his kind of anonymous power is. That is one of the places the book began—with an interest in this unelected but hugely powerful institution (the Federal Reserve) that makes decisions which have an enormous impact on millions of people’s lives but which is largely obscure and poorly understood. Doug too has that abstracted power that we’ve all been reading about so much of late with the financial crisis. I finished the book the week that Lehmann collapsed, so I’ve been thinking about this stuff for while. What I was (and still am) interested in isn’t so much trying to predict where anything is going as investigating what forms of consciousness and alienation that kind of power encourages and produces and what that then tells us about the decisions and decision makers who shape our lives. We live in a bureaucratic, atomized world, but the system is still run by human beings. If as a writer, you want to capture the world we live in, I think you have some responsibility to at least try to get at some of the ways we’ve chosen to govern ourselves.
DH: I wondered at first why you decided to ground teen Nate Fuller’s personality in such a drastic play as the suicide of his father. But Nate’s father is crushed by money problems. And it seems appropriate that he should kill himself in the endangered woods that adjoin the town. So you are power writing the plot. Piling on a consistent vision.
Talk about power writing: you aim Nate, the novel’s innocent, point blank, at the novel’s personification of moral turpitude..Doug Fanning. I wonder if you did that because you wanted to find out yourself what would happen? Do you ever approaching writing that way?
AH: I came to each of the characters separately. The first two and half years of writing, they didn’t meet or have any scenes together. In my imagination, they were like continents moving toward each other at a geologically slow pace. So, for instance, when I first wrote Doug, I didn’t have Nate in mind yet, and when I first wrote Nate, he was a boy of a totally different background and motivation. That said, once I had Nate knock on the door of this empty mansion he sees and sort of admires (in an earlier draft, Doug answers the door on that first day), I realized there was something more than just idle curiosity going on, i.e. it was an erotic moment, an opening up of desire. It’s one of the ways that Nate is actually on Doug’s side—he gets Doug’s attraction to a clean, empty wealth that seems to have no past. Because his recent past is his father’s suicide and he wants nothing more than a reason to forget that, along with the burden of his mother’s grief. When I write a character I try to be with them, looking over their shoulder, and so in the case of his meeting and coming to know Doug, I tried to say as close as I could, imagining what it would be like for a kid his age to be in the presence of such an intense man, who was so attractive to him.
DH: As a gay reader and bookseller, I was transfixed by Nate and Doug and about whether Nate would survive Doug. You settle the matter at the end of the novel in a way that I am not going to disclose…except to say that Nate resolves his character by walking across a room. A writer who displays such savvy on how to use a “stage set” has my sustained admiration.
But I wanted to ask you if you felt any qualms about putting some “gay interest” scenes in your novel. Do you think that the society of book readers has reached the point where it’s not going to type work. Saying: “This is not for me, it has gay sex (or more accurately perhaps, gay “non-sex”) scenes in it.” Or, with equal inaccuracy: “What a great gay novel.” (Which it isn’t, it’s just great.) So was striking a balance in the display of sexuality an issue for you in writing this novel? Or is it a big non-issue?
AH: The challenge for me on this score was how to write about a man who had never had sex with another male having sex with a younger guy and yet not leaving the reader with the simple conclusion that he’s therefore gay. All the characters in the book seek intimacy in one way or another. Doug is particularly bad at achieving it; in fact, the only way he even knows how to try is to exercise power over other people, whether through money or sex, whether they are male or female. Nate is for him a kind of doppelganger, a younger, alternative version of his own self, which in one scene of the book he imagines he can penetrate; as if he could penetrate his own past. His sexuality is less about choice of object and more about force and control. That our current spectrum of publicly recognizable sexual identities doesn’t happen to include a slot for someone like Doug Fanning says more, perhaps, about the rigidity of even a liberal understanding of sex and sexuality than it does about people who exist outside those more readily legible categories.
As for Nate and the portrayal of his desire, it took me a long time to get around to being able to write his scenes because the exposure still scared me. Even after my first book, even given how long I have been out to family and friends, it still took me a long time to work up the courage to describe what he wanted in unsentimental terms. But as Baldwin wrote, “every artist, if they are to survive, must vomit the anguish up, all of it, the literal and fanciful.” Fanciful anguish. It’s such an accurate ways of putting it.
DH: It seems that through the medium of Henry’s obsession with process, the novel finds a palatable way to bring high finance into the purview of your novel. In a complimentary way, through his sister Charlotte’s demented moral rectitude, her tirade against “cheap, mindless relativism”, we get presented an alternative moral vision where there is more to life than exploiting other people. Perhaps I am being unfair to Charlotte, but you make her ineffectual, do you not? Does that mean that her ethical critique is ineffectual as well?
AH: As I said above, a good deal of the energy and intensity I brought to writing Charlotte was my own deep, personal interest in the idea of this decaying of liberal conscience, and certainly part of that decay is its impotence in the face of modern conservatism—something we’ve seen recently again with the health care debate, where even a supposedly liberal president and Democratic congress couldn’t overcome entrenched corporate interests. Clearly, one of the things the book portrays is the routing of the liberal political imaginary by free-marketeers. That said, Charlotte’s world view is not altogether positive or innocent. Here again, there are ways in which Doug is right. Charlotte is condescending. She does make class judgments. She is a snob (as many people in this country believe most liberals are). My ambition was always to bring each of them to life as fully as possible and set them in conflict, as life does, not to pass ultimate judgment. In the end, Doug himself isn’t as effectual as he imagines himself to be. His unadulterated ambition has the kernel of self-destruction within it. In this sense, he and Charlotte have something in common—they’re driven and uncompromising, and by the end they even have a little respect for each other in that regard. They are the absolutists, not the pragmatists. They are not Henry Graves or Jeffery Holland. They won’t accept half-measures.
DH: I was struck by your portrait of old age and its isolating quality in our friend Charlotte. She thinks that her dogs are talking to her. Perhaps not quite that, but her interior monologue is projected outward towards her canines because it has no other place to go.
I was very impressed by her wisdom. At the Chinese dinner with Nate she argues fussily over the specials, pinching pennies. But then she scores by asking Nate: “Why is the world a problem for you?” That’s a six million dollar question.
Charlotte is devastated by her loneliness, her attachment to Nate is touching. But she also says: “But remember: people won’t save you.” I loved Charlotte, beaten down but struggling not to give up. Are you one of those writers who loves their characters? All right Adam, confess please. How did you come up with such a great character as Charlotte?
AH: I think it’s fair to say that I do love my characters. If love is compassion and empathy and sometimes also envy and pride. When I’m writing from any one of their perspectives, that is the perspective I believe in and want to see prevail. That is as true of my experience of writing Henry and Doug as of Charlotte. I think that’s essential in order not to condescend to the people you’re writing about. That is, to grant them at least the same complexity you experience the world with, and hopefully, when you’re reaching imaginatively, even more than that, because in writing for days and weeks and months you spend more time contemplating a single passage of a character’s consciousness than anyone in real life usually does, and so you can make it layered and intricate in ways that people recognize because it is just below the surface of their own thinking, only they are moving too quickly through life to notice. That is much of what I think the writer’s job is—to slow people down. To give them the chance to notice the passage of time as experienced by others as a reminder of what it is like to be alive. Because we are most often distracted from that. Massively distracted.
As to the portrayal of loneliness and old age, I think that for one reason or another I’ve always had an intuitive sense of people’s solitude and the poignancy of their efforts to ignore or overcome it. Whether it was going to visit my widowed grandmother down the street from the house where I grew up, or coping with loneliness in my own life and family, I suppose I’ve always written from an understanding of solitude as our basic, existential condition. Which is one of the reasons that most of the characters in the novel are people who are trying to get closer to others, often in rather elaborate and circuitous ways. Nate’s naïveté is precisely that he simply asks for intimacy, rather than being “adult” and realizing it’s either impolite or unsafe to make such a demand.
DH: I want to play the class card. Doug Fanning may be corrupt but perhaps we should feel some sympathy for him because of his working class upbringing. His mother was a maid. He attains great wealth and returns to live in the quaint but affluent hamlet of Finden where his mother used to clean out houses.
He’s a social interloper. Is there at least some old school hint in your novel that that’s what makes him illegitimate or frightening?
AH: That’s a complicated question. The issue of social class is certainly at play in the book. Americans like to think they live in a classless society but of course we don’t. Doug and Charlotte are both deeply imprinted by the class in which they grew up. They both have prejudices born of that experience. And some of their mutual animosity stems from that difference.
One of the formal elements I fought hardest to preserve in the book was a thoroughgoing (and mostly consistent) perspectivalism, the idea that human experience is always from and of a particular person in a particular place. You could say it’s a commitment to point of view. The result, I hope, is that all of these issues, class included, necessarily arise out of a particular character’s judgments or wishes or projections, often balanced by another character’s differing judgments and wishes. Nietzsche once said, what most people consider thought is simply a rearrangement of their prejudices. I see Charlotte and Nate as no less bound by that constraint than Doug. In that sense, if Doug is, as you put it, “frightening or illegitimate” it is only from another character’s point of view, not the book’s as a whole. That, at least, is the ambition.
DH: Charlotte is a defrocked high school teacher. Her criticism of the educational system and of her students is part of the message of malaise that haunts the book. She describes her last crops of students as “mere harvesters of fact, unwilling to be transformed by what they might learn.”
This is another case of your smart technique of introducing discussions of value into the text without pulling us out of the story. Quite the contrary! This discussion with her student, Nate, is followed by a flashback of her lover Eric, where the talk goes even deeper and further illuminates Charlotte’s character with a solid backstory.
Here’s your great Jamesian line about her old students: “They were closed to that higher ambiguity that came only from observing at close range a person compelled by knowledge…” And you go on to talk about “a generosity of attention.”
This sounds like a great prescription for the writer’s profession. Do you think that there is something in that? That the writer learns to listen, compelled by transformative knowledge, learns to have a generous attention? And do you require that writing has to change you…has to be transformative; or you shouldn’t be writing it or shouldn’t reading it?
AH: Over the last five years as I’ve been working on my novel, my sister, Julia Haslett, has been making a documentary about the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil. The line of Weil’s that first intrigued Julia was: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” For me, in writing fiction, the creation of character is often about just this kind of generous attention, as you suggest. It takes an active mental effort to imagine another person’s experience. And even if, as is necessarily the case, what you imagine is always deeply informed by your own preoccupations, there is a way in which a character’s fate, once you’ve committed to it, becomes an independent imaginative entity to which you then pay close attention. Does this extend into a writer’s everyday life? To some extent, sure. I’m always picking out details of behavior, half-consciously storing them away in my mind (where they promptly get lost and disappear). In fact, I was recently in Germany for the release of the novel over there and I gave a lecture called Fiction as Form of Attention to the World, in which I discussed just this idea of perceiving other people’s lives as fictional entities. My main point is that it’s a double-edged way of being: it can grant one a sense of control and order in an otherwise unedited stream of experience, but by the same token, it can become a defense against the present, a way to ward off evidence of other people’s suffering and even love. All this, I think, is a disposition that precedes actual writing. It’s a means of survival that usually arises when you’re young, before you even begin to write.
As to the question of whether a book should be transformative in the writing or reading of it, I think, ideally, yes, transformative in both instances. In practice, of course, it isn’t always the case. The match between a reader and the book they will find transformative is wildly unpredictable, which is as it should be. There would be something awful about knowing in advance what books would change you. Discovery is the joy.
DH: There’s so much in your rich novel that I haven’t covered. How a house can represent a soul or a lack thereof, how a family member’s ability to change can surprise us (I am thinking of Doug’s mother.) and a lot of cutthroat office jungle stuff that anyone who has worked in a building with cubicles will recognize.
There is a great tableau of social satire, that posh CEO lawn party. There is so much about what New England is like, so much about what New York is like, in our current atmosphere of financial meltdown.
Adam, your novel is so topical that you can rightly be recognized as a seer. But the topicality is going to fade and the public is eventually going to move on to other issues.
That leaves us with the great social and moral epic of Union Atlantic. After all the media buzz has settled down, what are you hoping that readers will take away from it?
AH: Ah, there’s a dangerous question. Unanswerable in one sense. The miracle of a book is that it operates without the author, a word machine activated by others’ minds, and so of course my fondest wish is that it have that life independent of me. But the answer I think I can give is what I aimed for and hoped to have achieved. The two kinds of novels which have left the deepest impression on me as a writer are the grand realist sagas of the 19th century—Tolstoy and Eliot, mainly—and those modernist novels that take the intensity of consciousness as their subject—Faulkner, Woolf, Proust. Having never written a novel before I felt quite intimidated by the form because of its history and the range of what had been achieved in the genre. But my ambition was to try to combine the attributes I admire in modernism and 19th century realism. So I wanted and felt the need for some social scope, some taking in of the cultural and political landscape of the U.S. in the first decade of the new century; but at the same time, I didn’t want to sacrifice the intensity of interiority that I think is my first and most basic instinct to portray as a writer. Now, whether I’ve succeeded in this, having breath of vision and depth of feeling, I have to leave to the reader to say. But if there is something I’d like a reader to come away with it would be some recognition of that effort, to be judged as they see fit.