The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum. Biblioasis, 192pp., $16.95.
Most work in the United States is an expression of contempt for the people who must perform it. Most work is humiliating, stripped of worthy skills, destructive, and tedious. Even the most sought after jobs are places of real human misery: boredom.
The despair of work, because it is a despair that all oligarchs depend on, is never seriously addressed by liberalism. Even for unions, it’s off the table. If it weren’t, they’d never have gotten a seat at the table in the first place. Instead, we hear: “You’re lucky to have a job.” In the meantime, what Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, called the “dogma of work” makes its way, physically and spiritually impoverishing those who kneel before it.
(Curtis White, “Managing Despair”)
Curtis White posted the above while I considered Rebecca Rosenblum’s story cycle, The Big Dream. What is wrong with those of us who spend time in dead-end jobs that scrape away our insides?
The Big Dream is set in a magazine company, Dream Inc., which has a line of publications like Dream Car, Dream Condo, and the faintly redundant Dream Romance. Its Ontario office is located in the city of Mississauga, just outside Toronto (nearer the airport than the “central location” employees in the opening story, “Dream Big,” would prefer), at a time of economic downturn. The non-chronological arrangement of the stories allows for time to flow forward and backward, providing mild suspense or multiple sidelong perspectives on events not shown directly, while the characters in this arbeitsroman (a fiction title about work, and the workplace) weaken and shiver in the increasingly dire atmosphere of a company whose niche, paper-dependent products stand slender chances of thriving in a dot-com age. (That the business is failing says something about the quality of those dreams, but that goes untouched.) Some of the stories touch on the failure of the business. “Research” begins ominously: “The Research Department at Dream Magazines has been reduced.” What’s left is one woman, identified with and by her department, who watches as her colleagues’ cubicles are dismantled. (Though a good story, “Research” is blemished partway through when Rosenblum drops an oblique approach to corporate ways, turning promising material into a psychological study. The loss of distinctness is regrettable.) In “Dream Inc.,” the penultimate story, management discuss, then avoid, a layoff session.
In this book about work, we don’t often see people working. Instead, we hear complaints from employees about their cafeteria, about other employees, and about what it costs, in human terms, to work in the place of others’ dreams. This is best shown in the effective “How to Keep Your Day Job,” featuring a new female employee, “you,” advised by an experienced, omnipotent, and anonymous colleague (or the workplace equivalent of a household god) on how to get along in a hostile environment. “Your colleagues might not like you even if you don’t whine,” starts one paragraph.
If, at 4:07, a superior finds something that must be completed by the next morning, say you can’t stay if you can’t stay. Explain that to do overtime, you’ll need some notice because you have lots of responsibilities (use the words overtime and responsibilities—they are more imposing than work late and stuff to do). If your superior doesn’t respond, explain about the show, the workshop, or your partner’s desire to have you home by six. Then look sad. Then go sit down and do the work.
There is no relief at home. “Do not moan to your partner that you are imprisoned away from your real life, squashed and stifled, unmotivated and under-appreciated. He’ll only tell you to move the canvases out of the living room if you’re not going to work on them. Your partner hates whiners.” Rosenblum underlines the similarities between an office job and one’s love life; both require acquiescence, muteness, and a trashing of self-worth. Tenderness has no place in a relationship or on the job. “Complimentary Yoga” goes to the other extreme. A poor employee becomes infatuated, or something creepily close, with his female supervisor. He eventually confronts her physically in what can only be perceived as a threatening way, except to him. “She’s afraid, that’s what she is, the stupid cunt, afraid of him, when he loves her and buys her gifts. He puts his arms around her, presses her wet face into the front of his shirt to dry her tears. He hugs her so tight.”
In this workplace filled with creeps, workaholics, and the insecure, it’s refreshing to have a girlfriend emphasize what shouldn’t be forgotten: “‘Overtime is optional.’ She waved the knife absently. ‘Real life is not optional.’” Her boyfriend mentally responds: “It was sweet of her to think this. Sweet and delusional.” Here is the crux of the situation: when one’s private life becomes secondary to work, society is in a rotten state. “He was wasting a perfectly good girlfriend,” admits the man in “Dream Big,” who nevertheless persists in White’s “despair of work.”
The prose in these 13 stories (plus some emails) contains rueful truths (“Her mother would have watched Yaël’s whole life on cable, in real time, had there been such a station,” from “The Anonymous Party”), swift portraits (in “Sweet” a child is described as a “fat angry grandson”), and depths of feeling (“How to Keep Your Day Job” and “The Weather I’m Under,” where a young woman shows an older woman “respect” by removing both her earbuds while they speak). Almost casual lines, never pitched at a sitcom level, stand out in a prose that, unfortunately, does not demand much from the reader. The Big Dream pales in comparison to the recent story collections Night Soul and Other Stories (Joseph McElroy) and Widow (Michelle Latiolais). McElroy’s book stands out for ingeniously making multiple levels of event and narrative occur almost at the same time, matching them to tremendous gusts of feeling, while Latiolais’s work is distinguished by its anger and sadness tied to a brave exploration of what the bereaved feel. Except occasionally, Rosenblum doesn’t venture far enough with her prose.
Similarly, the overall temperature of the collection is moderate, and the result is a missed opportunity to present readers with an incisive, damning, and thorough criticism of the work-life situation Rosenblum has re-created. Perhaps this is a matter of temperament, and she’ll write something heated soon. Rosenblum is not subversive and challenging, and she could look, for recent exemplars of those qualities, to Alexandra Chasin’s and A.D. Jameson’s short stories, which don’t much care if the reader understands them right off. They accept that they’re not for everyone. They challenge on the level of the sentence, in their ideas, in their aggressiveness, and they don’t ask to be liked. Rosenblum’s geniality, while pleasant, can only go so far.
As large as the aesthetic question is the awareness, as White indicates above, of the humiliating nature of most work, and a pursuit of the motivation behind those who choose to work in a place that uses them harshly. Rosenblum states at the blog site 49th Shelf: “I wanted to write the stories in The Big Dream because I find people in their working lives so worth thinking and writing about. I often think that literature is missing that—missing that emotional and intellectual life continues at work, and that boring work does not necessarily equal a boring person. Actually, not only literature but lots of real people miss that jobs are a part of life, not a distraction from it.” But what kind of life is it? Inertia and sadness reside on almost every page of this collection, highlighted by flashes of humor, and we close the book no wiser as to why workers return to a hostile, unforgiving space every day. The Big Dream isn’t interested in such a topic. For all its entertaining charms, that lack of engagement makes it less satisfying as an arbeitsroman than its individual parts.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, was published in October 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty.
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