I don’t spend much of my present life thinking much about my former career, but some books take that choice away. Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream (Biblioasis, Fall 2011) is spectacularly adept at evoking the surreality of working for a big corporation. Read this book, do.
(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)
Long ago, I worked as a banker; of course I planned to milk my experiences for a novel. Everyone but my mother is glad that the manuscript is dead, and in any case, there would be no point now that I’ve discovered Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream, which unravels the cat’s cradle bridging the work and personal lives of cubicle dwellers with enviable precision. If you’ve ever been an ill-fitting cog in a Giant Wheel, much of your joy in this book will stem from the discovery that Rosenblum has it exactly right.
Set in the Toronto office of a lifestyle magazine publisher, the interlinked stories in this collection showcase CFOs, cafeteria workers, marketing executives and customer service representatives all struggling to remember what’s real and important, even as their work lives corrupt their judgement. Professionalism has come to signify a deliberate absence of emotion; the inevitable concomitant is the amplification of trivialities and the forcible suppression of our primal preoccupations. “Rae only knew all cubes on the window row were occupied: hers, Hamid’s, Amelia who had bone cancer, weird silent Mallick, Andrew who sometimes whistled.” A terminal disease is reduced to a handy identifier listed in the company of quirks and idiosyncrasies; Rosenblum is masterly at identifying the mutations in our thinking resulting from our buying into a consumer culture that emphasizes marketing and spin. The characters in this book often define themselves by singularities (usually banal), deliberately whittling away at any hints of personality that might mark them out as less-than-corporate material. “Don’t do anything that could draw attention. Your goal should be to be anonymously indispensable (like a photocopier that never jams)” says the unnamed narrator in “How to Keep Your Day Job”. But the corollary of such suppression is a disconnection with reality; we lose our sense of what’s natural. In “Complimentary Yoga”, an incompetent, prickly worker dreams up a romantic relationship with his supervisor, even as he’s getting fired.
Each of these stories also pulsates with the awareness of the globalized world that the characters interact with, albeit reluctantly. In one story, employees learn their jobs have been outsourced to India, and the impersonal tyranny of the organization frees them to articulate long-suppressed bigotry, with life-changing consequences. We are mostly inured to the weirdness of our working lives; The Big Dream is a wise, witty wake-up call.
If not for the magazine’s word limit, this piece would be ten times as long. Visit Rosenblum’s site to learn more about her writing.