The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the story of an apparently conformist suburban business-man with a secret past, who came to be seen by readers as a representative of American life in the 1950s. Tom Rath is a 30-something veteran of World War II, who, following the end of the war, has returned to his wife Betsy and begun a new life. He has three children and a newly acquired job as personal assistant to the head of United Broadcasting. Everything seems to be going well for him, but this novel, first published in 1955, is actually about his internal struggles and desperation, his intense memories of the war and his unhappiness with the corporate world in which he is trapped.
I discovered this book when it was mentioned on Mad Men and I can see many similarities with the story of the show’s main character, Don Draper. Like Don, Tom gives nothing away at work – he seems a typical corporate drone in a suit, despite his interesting past – and has a few identity issues. Early in the novel, he is asked to write an autobiography as part of a job application and, tellingly, it’s his refusal to reveal anything beyond the bare facts of his present situation that gets him the job. To say that he leads a double life wouldn’t be quite accurate, as he actually experiences his life as divided into ‘four completely unrelated worlds’:
There was the crazy, ghost-ridden world of his grandmother and his dead parents. There was the isolated, best-non-remembered world in which he had been a paratrooper. There was the matter-of-fact, opaque-glass-brick-partitioned world of places like the United Broadcasting Company and the Schanenhauser Foundation. And there was the entirely separate world populated by Betsy and Janey and Barbara and Pete, the only one of the four worlds worth a damn. There must be some way in which the four worlds were related, he thought, but it was easier to think of them as entirely divorced from one another.
I wonder if this feeling was shared by many war veterans in the 1950s. I found the sections of the book describing Tom’s wartime experiences in Italy and the Pacific very vivid and powerful, perhaps intentionally more real-seeming than the descriptions of his home-life in America. There is a distinct lack of connection between Tom’s post-war life, with the suburban drinks parties and his worries over whether he can afford to re-plaster the living room, and the close relationships he experienced during the war, when, the book suggests, time seemed to have a different meaning altogether. Sloan Wilson was himself a veteran of World War II, which I am sure must have contributed to the emotional intensity of those sections of the novel.
Another aspect of the novel I liked very much is the cynical critique of the business world in which Tom works, which results in some black comedy. His boss, Hopkins, is an interesting character, famous for being an extreme workaholic, and I enjoyed learning about his childhood and family life. When his wife asks him to help persuade their rebellious daughter to go to college, she exasperatedly cries, ‘By God, if it will help you, treat her as a business problem!’
Part of Tom’s new job involves helping with Hopkins’ efforts to set up a philanthropic foundation to improve mental health treatment. In a plot development that seemed very modern to me, this is shown to be a completely empty and meaningless endeavour and the subject of more cynicism and humour. Neither Hopkins nor Tom (as his assistant and speech-writer) know anything or could care less about mental health. As Tom says, ‘they’re going to sell mental health the way they sell cigarettes’. Maybe this is slightly ironic considering the state of Tom’s own mental health, his despair and randomly occurring violent impulses. I liked the three thoughts, almost internal catch-phrases, that helped get Tom through parachute jumps in the war and which he also repeats at difficult moments in his current life: ‘It doesn’t really matter’, ‘Here goes nothing’, and ‘It will be interesting to see what happens’. They capture a certain sense of apathy and detachment which is characteristic of Tom.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is an unusual book, since it combines the cynical humour and challenge to society I already mentioned, with a naive optimism and conformity. I preferred the former aspect of the book, partly because it reflects my own personal tastes and opinions, and partly because the more optimistic side seemed to require that certain characters act in a very convenient and slightly unrealistic way. My copy includes an interesting introduction by Jonathan Franzen, which suggests that the more conformist side of the book hints at the causes of rebellion and change in the 1960s. In the 1960s, the counterculture intellectuals and rebels came to loathe the ‘man in the gray flannel suit’ and see him as an opponent.
Whatever you are more emotionally drawn to as a reader, the novel is an interesting way to find out more about the atmosphere of America in the 1950s. I think Mad Men fans will enjoy spotting all the little details that appear, transformed, in the TV show. The novel also provides an insight into the mind of a man who returned home from war to find his wife ‘a kind of antique version of himself, unchanged’ and had to reacquaint himself with the ‘casual certainty’ and ‘half-remembered optimism’ of his earlier life.