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10 Great American Business Novels
A student of an underappreciated literary genre selects some books that may change the way you see what you do.
June 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 4
Aware that life is passing him by, Rabbit longs to “break out, to find another self.” Unable to do so, he sees his son’s increasingly insistent claims to succession in the family business as a severe personal threat. Heartbreaking encounters between one generation and the next dramatize the passions that can divide and all too often destroy closely held family businesses.
Joseph Heller’s Bob Slocum is a man on the edge. This mid-level executive is a master of spin control—converting lies into the truths that his corporate superiors want to hear. The truth of the matter, though, is that Slocum has ingratiated himself with top management and subscribed to the company gospel he has helped to perpetuate at the price of his own integrity. The voice we hear in Slocum’s wrenching internal monologues is shot through with the despair of someone who is lost to himself. Progressive self entrapment is Heller’s great theme in Something Happened.
Alan Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis is also about an executive whose job is processing information—“the maximum information in the minimum time.” Unlike Slocum, though, Bill Chalmers has no time to think about his state of mind. Fully accessorized with cell phone and laptop, he is unable to “do anything but run, run, run.” One morning he develops amnesia, forgetting where he’s going and even who he is. Then physical paralysis immobilizes him, and doctors can’t properly diagnose his illness. Lightman interlaces the story of Chalmers’s struggles to recover a sense of himself with an account of Socrates’ trial and last days. The contrast between the philosopher’s selfpossession in the face of death and the dying Chalmers’s desperation to redeem a life ill spent underscores the value of self-examination. Lightman is not suggesting that philosophers make better businessmen, only affirming that now as then the unexamined life is not worth living.
Great business fictions remind us that in our efforts to define corporate values and to routinize work, we may ignore valuable eccentrics in our midst. Such a one is lgnatious Reilly, in John Kennedy Toole’s comic epic, A Confederacy of Dunces. Reilly’s contempt for conventional thought processes and behavior relegates him to the fringes of New Orleans society. Eventually hired as a filing assistant by Levy Pants, an ailing manufacturing concern, Reilly vows to set the company straight—his way. Forging the absentee owner’s name, he responds to a customer’s complaint about quality with a scathing rebuff that results in a pending lawsuit for slander. Pursuing his theory of social justice, he organizes a labor walkout. Predictably, lgnatious gets himself fired, but his outlandish actions ironically bring a measure of sanity and creativity to the very people he has antagonized.
By contrast, Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener concerns a self-effacing soul hired by a Wall Street lawyer to copy legal documents. Bartleby is at first decorous and diligent. But then one day the scrivener refuses the lawyer’s request to verify a document, saying quietly, “I’d prefer not to.” Soon afterward, to his boss’s mortification, Bartleby refuses on the same grounds to do any work at all. The lawyer, for reasons he cannot fathom, can’t bring himself to fire his perverse employee. To the contrary, he finds compassion gradually overriding anger and frustration as he is drawn to the forlorn Bartleby by “the bond of a common humanity.” Bartleby the Scrivener mocks conventional methods of “resolving conflict.” It is about profoundly human yet often inexplicable impulses to resist conformity to established workplace culture and routine.