The Importance of Being Earnest

One of my favourite holiday novels this year was Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic, the story of Doug Fanning, a rapacious investment banker who has just built his own McMansion, and his feud with Charlotte Graves, the ageing history teacher who owns the crumbling house next door. It’s a clash not just of generations but of values, and one of the best attempts in fiction to analyse the current crisis. In a book full of gorgeous writing, one paragraph in particular struck a chord. Towards the end of the novel Charlotte decides to take action. And this is what occurs to her:

As she stepped down the ramp onto the floor of the barn, she began to feel as she’d imagined she would, reading those stories in the papers over the years of the environmentalists and the anti-free traders who broke the law in the name of some greater justice, the anticipation of the act clarifying experience, rescuing it from the prison of language, the inward purpose blessing the otherwise desultory of meaning. And yet, for that very reason, she’d always considered such extremism adolescent. Too simple. Willful in its ignorance of the world’s complexity. And so deadly earnest. And yet how judgmental she’d been. What, after all, was wrong with earnestness? Weren’t Fanning and his kind earnest? Weren’t all the polluters earnest, the physical and the cultural? And did anyone ever impugn or mock them for it? No one ever thought to. Avarice was never shackled by a concern for authenticity. It didn’t care about image or interpretation.

People who care strongly about the environment or human rights or working conditions are so often apologetic or self-deprecating about their strength of feeling. People who care strongly about money never have to be. It’s time to be proud to be earnest. Let’s never be ashamed to care.

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