Why Tom Wolfe’s latest book is a better business novel than any of the English competitors
Last year one novel with a business theme made it to the Booker Prize shortlist – England, England, by Julian Barnes. It was necessary Christmas reading but as I came to the end I wondered again why modern novelists find it so hard to deal with modern business.
Barnes’ novel is not aimed at displacing The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People from the airport bookstalls. Indeed it is probably enough to dissuade most Financial Times readers from picking up if I say that Barnes is an Anglo-French intellectual, that his previous works include Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, and that the theme of England, England is relentlessly post-modern – the transformation of the Isle of Wight into a theme park in which the image and the reality of England are hopeless confused.
The central figure is modelled on Robert Maxwell. Sir Jack Pitman is an obsessive English patriot despite his obscure East European origins. His vanity is unbounded and his personal habits are repulsive. He has been declared ‘unfit to run a whelk stall’ by a DTI inspector but has nevertheless risen to command a great business empire.
It is significant that Barnes has borrowed rather than created the character of a tycoon and his account of Pitman has none of the vividness of Tom Bower’s portrait of the real thing in Maxwell – the Outsider. And Barnes is far less effective than Bower in exploring the nature of a larger-than-life grotesque, or how it is that someone whose flaws are even more evident than his talents can go in winning the necessary support of people more conventionally able than himself. To find a good fictional exploration of these questions, you have to go back over a century, to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.
Barnes’ other central character – Martha Cochrane, the tough-minded female executive who blackmails her way to the top position in Pitman’s empire – fails to convince and his account of the actual business dealings of Pitman and Cochrane is sketchy in the extreme. The most memorable character in Barnes’ novel is Dr Max, the media don.
And therein lies a clue. If there are few modern business novels, there are many modern Academic novels. These range from the ponderous dissection of Cambridge politics in C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series to some of the best comic writing in recent fiction – Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, and Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue. These authors write best about worlds they know, or at least mingle in. David Lodge, after several pointed analyses of the rackets that pervade academic life, failed to strike home when he turned his attention to the business scene in Nice Work.
There are many people in academic life with literary talent, and few in the business world. And since in Britain there is an almost complete disjunction between the business world and academic and literary circles, there is an almost complete absence of good business novels.
We do better when we look to the United States. The best business novel of recent years is not a novel at all; it is Barbarians at the Gate, the account by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar of the contested acquisition of RJR Nabisco. And the funniest business novel is again by an American, albeit European based, and again is not a novel, although we must hope that not all of what it describes is true. This is Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s account of his time at Salomon Brothers.
But the finest literary commentator on business is Tom Wolfe, whose second novel, A Man in Full, appeared last autumn. Wolfe does not set out to write a business novel. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, he took apart the life of modern New York, and in his latest work he does the same for Atlanta. Wolfe is in many respects the modern American Dickens. His characterisation and plot delight in exaggeration. He delves into every aspect of the societies with which he deals – race, class, politics and social habits. But because commerce is central to the lives of both New York and Atlanta, commerce is equally central to these novels.
But Wolfe is concerned to understand business as well as to castigate it. Dickens, or even Trollope, displayed the same British disregard for the mechanics of industry and commerce that is conspicuous in Barnes. Wolfe, his acerbity directed by careful research, does not. And that is why The Bonfire of the Vanities identifies, unerringly, key weaknesses in modern American society – the over-expansion of financial services, excessive emphasis on litigation, and explosive racially based class divisions. And why A Man in Full would be my book of the year for 1998.