The eeriest and most gravid of today’s new emoji is this guy: the so-called Man in Business Suit Levitating. In Apple’s rendition, he cuts an imposing figure, like a rich kid who’s just aced his LSATs—a simpering, dubiously pompadoured fella in polarized glasses and a natty suit. His tapered silhouette hangs above a blip of a shadow. He’s a superhuman exclamation point. He’s the floating face of capitalism. And if literature has taught us anything, it’s that he brings nothing but bad news wherever he roams.
I’m prepared to advance an entirely unfounded argument based on an hour of Googling: that this levitating businessman is the latest, most accessible form of a character who has haunted literature for more than a century. Sometimes wily, sometimes unscrupulous, and sometimes merely misguided, he’s held aloft by Adam Smith’s invisible hand only to be flung earthward again. Join me, won’t you, on an impromptu whistle-stop tour of THE LEVITATING BUSINESSMAN IN LITERATURE.
For starters, there’s William Dean Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), whose very title indicates levitation. In a rags-to-riches tale, Lapham’s eponymous hero makes a killing in the paint business; newly wealthy, his family leaps many, many rungs on the social ladder, only to find that the air up there is pretty thin. By the end of the book, Silas’s poor business decisions have reversed their fate, and his rise has become a collapse. In another Rise novel, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the fall is foreshadowed as early as the first paragraph:
I was born and reared in the lowest depths of poverty and I arrived in America—in 1885—with four cents in my pocket. I am now worth more than two million dollars and recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States. And yet when I take a look at my inner identity it impresses me as being precisely the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance.
Now, look at that emoji and tell me he doesn’t look like a guy who’s been raking it in from the cloak-and-suit trade—a guy who’s about to scuff up his patent-leather shoes as he falls to the ground.
Consider also Frank Algernon Cowperwood, the protagonist of Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier (1912) who, having landed in prison for his misuse of municipal funds, cannot help but look heavenward for his rightful place:
The nebulous conglomeration of the suns in Pleiades suggested a soundless depth of space, and he thought of the earth floating like a little ball in immeasurable reaches of ether. His own life appeared very trivial in view of these things, and he found himself asking whether it was all really of any significance or importance. He shook these moods off with ease, however, for the man was possessed of a sense of grandeur, largely in relation to himself and his affairs; and his temperament was essentially material and vital. Something kept telling him that whatever his present state he must yet grow to be a significant personage, one whose fame would be heralded the world over—who must try, try, try. It was not given all men to see far or to do brilliantly; but to him it was given, and he must be what he was cut out to be. There was no more escaping the greatness that was inherent in him than there was for so many others the littleness that was in them.
Of course, despite his efforts to attain escape velocity, the littleness is in Cowperwood, too; by the end of The Stoic (1947), the second of two sequels to The Financier, he has died of a severe kidney disease, and his inheritance is dissipated in lawsuits.
What? You’re still not convinced by my citations, which would earn me a failing grade from even the most lenient English professor? Right this way, then, to Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), a book of such moral force that for a while its title was part of the vernacular: it was used to refer to materialistic, complacent, conformist businessmen. (E.g.: “That levitating businessman emoji is such a fucking Babbitt.”) Its opening lines put us right in the sky:
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.
George F. Babbitt lives in Zenith. The dude is high! He’s off the ground! He sells houses for a living, and he owns a very nice alarm clock! Soon, though, growing weary of the American dream, Babbitt tries to shake things up a bit. He has an extramarital affair. He even goes camping. And what does he get for it? His best friend shoots his wife and his son elopes. Bad luck, Babbitt!
There’s also Nathanael West’s A Cool Million (1934), a Horatio Alger satire in which an aspiring businessman is literally dismembered as he attempts to make his fortune; and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), whose hero is gunning for the big promotion at work and begins to split at the seams. Actually, the only legitimately, uh, uplifting portrayal of levitation among businessmen is also the most literal. It belongs to David Foster Wallace, oddly enough, who in his posthumous The Pale King (2010) gives his most enviably happy character, Drinion, the gift of involuntary levitation:
Drinion is actually levitating slightly, which is what happens when he is completely immersed; it’s very slight, and no one can see that his bottom is floating slightly above the seat of the chair. One night someone comes into the office and sees Drinion floating upside down over his desk with his eyes glued to a complex return, Drinion himself unaware of the levitating thing by definition, since it is only when his attention is completely on something else that the levitation happens.
This would seem to defeat my thesis, right? The only concrete example of a levitating white-collar guy, and he’s happy. But bear in mind that Drinion is merely an IRS accountant—he could never afford our emoji’s sunglasses—and his levitation occurs only when he’s deeply, almost superhumanly involved in the task at hand. And is our levitating businessman emoji really immersed in anything other than himself? Look at that gloss, that grin: this man is a pathological narcissist. His fall is coming. You have no reason to trust him. If he appears on your phone, throw it away.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review. He wrote this in a great hurry.