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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
It has always struck me that the best business novels are interactive. In them, the world of commerce is driven by people whose reality is made palpable to us but whose values, attitudes, and biases often compel us to question our own: As a businessperson, how would I relate to the kind of complex, unpredictable circumstances in which all-too-real fictional characters commonly find themselves? The great business novels I know are salutary, not because they afford us an escape from our office routines but precisely because they turn us back on ourselves and promote the indispensable habit of self-scrutiny. I’ve grouped the following 10 novels according to the diverse characters they portray—from predators and visionaries to escape artists and eccentrics.
One of the most memorable characters in the fictions of business is also the nastiest. William Faulkner’s Flem Snopes gives fresh meaning to the term self-interest . The Hamlet is a kind of demented depiction of the American dream. Snopes typifies the frightening ease with which an individual endowed with entrepreneurial shrewdness and killer instincts can rise from poverty to a position of wealth and commanding power over an entire community. Faulkner’s novel shows us also how powerfully fear and intimidation can force the complacent and unwary to ignore their better judgment, abdicate their authority, and, in The Hamlet, literally give the store away. Faulkner’s setting is a small Southern backwater—but it might just as well be a highly competitive corporate environment.
Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier describes the rise to power and wealth of Frank Cowperwood, a turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century titan who flouts conventional notions of morality with a winner-takeall mentality in building his empire. Unlike the abhorrent Flem Snopes, though, Cowperwood emerges as a sympathetic, even heroic, figure in a commercial frontier driven by political influence and dealmaking. In our own age, power brokers like Cowperwood, who know how to charm, cajole, and manipulate to achieve their ends, become celebrities, and we, like Cowperwood’s contemporaries, follow their schemes with fascination (and perhaps even envy).
Hardly less predatory in his way, yet the least visible character in American business fiction, is JR, the sixth-grade entrepreneur of William Gaddis’s darkly comic novel of that name. A National Book Award winner in 1976, JR uncannily anticipates the age of e-commerce by following this precocious youngster as he uses a telephone in his school as a base for building a diversified (paper) empire from a mail-order shipment of surplus Navy forks. Savvy stockbrokers, marketers, and administrators line up behind this shadowy Wunderkind, sacrificing their adult judgment, experience, and ethical principles to greed. Like most companies built on pure speculation, JR’s empire eventually crumbles. Lost in the process, though, is more than overvalued stock; Gaddis insists that the real loss in a society so driven by the market is a common culture, a sense of civility, an educated mind—in short, an understanding of what it means to be human.
First cousin to the predator in the fictions of business is the visionary—the individual who stands out from journeymen executives in his single-minded drive, his willingness to take immense risks, and his commanding style. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Monroe Stahr, modeled on the movie producer Irving Thalberg, is the hero of the author’s uncompleted novel, The Last Tycoon, a graphie depiction of how business is done in corporate Hollywood. Like all great business leaders, Stahr couples idealism with a realistic view. Stahr’s command-and-control management style may be frowned upon these days, but he is an artist at exerting autocratic will when his vision of what a great movie studio ought to be requires just that.
Hank Morgan, a mid-level efficiency expert, finds himself in a sixth-century time warp in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. With nineteenth-century hindsight, Morgan perceives the need for an overhaul of England’s communication and transportation systems. Shrewd Yankee that he is, though, he understands that to establish credibility with the rank and file, he needs to best his rival, Merlin, which he does by performing a godlike miracle. Duly knighted by popular acclamation, this Master of the Universe brings advanced technology to his people—only to discover, to his great disillusionment, how strenuously people resist change, especially revolutionary change, even when it appears to be in their best interest.
The escape artist in American business fiction is, to all appearances, well adjusted to the workaday routine; but another part longs to flee, to shed a skin, and start life over again. In Rabbit is Rich, John Updike’s aptly named Rabbit Angstrom inwardly bridles against his life as head of a family automobile franchise that he has conveniently eased into but that leaves him spiritually and emotionally adrift.
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.