The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit

The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit

Compares poorly to 'The Bell Jar' in almost every respect

I was familiar with the phrase "man in the gray flannel suit," of course. But it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I learned that it began life as the title of a 1955 novel that was wildly popular at the time. It was described as "the book every Mad Men fan should read," which intrigued me. A recent re-issue had a foreword written by Jonathan Franzen, which was more intriguing still.

Spoiler alert: the book itself? Is not intriguing.
 
Conceptually, it is rock solid. Wikipedia describes it as being "about the American struggle for purpose in a world dominated by business," and I suppose it is that. But it is also sluggish, and downright inept in several respects. Reading it I couldn't help but compare it to Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" which touches on several similar themes, but which is about a million times better in every regard.

The book primarily follows Tom Rath, a man who was a successful and brave paratrooper during WWII and who is now re-entering the workforce. As we begin the book he is contemplating leaving his current job, with the charitable foundation run by his family, for a high-powered high-stress job with the CEO of a national broadcasting company.
 
Tom has a wife, Betsy, who is shallow and childish. She is the image of the unhappy 50s housewife that Plath's protagonist struggled against. They have three children who serve little purpose in the book. Tom is haunted by his memories of a romance during the war with a woman named Maria in Italy. He knocked her up and then he left her, and the book spends a lot of time wondering what Tom should do about that, as if he had left his wallet behind instead of a child.
 
Aside from the frustrating '50s morality, vast swaths of the book are comprised of characters either A) talking to each other or B) thinking aloud. It really makes you appreciate the basic writing class admonishment to "show, not tell." Characters spend a lot of time debating over what they should do; a sure sign that the author himself is unsure on the issue.
 
Halfway through the book, the Raths sell their miserable little middle class-aspirational home and move to Tom's aunt's fabulous old estate. Strangely, this has little to no bearing on later events. It certainly has no effect on the characters' day-to-day lives. Is that even possible? Only, it would seem, with a particularly tone-deaf author.