The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum

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.


Women of the Short Story Tour

I live at a tantalizingly inconvenient distance from Toronto. The accursed highway that links me to literary activity is a perpetual jam; what should be a 45-minute drive takes two hours most evenings.  So a 7:00 pm Toronto event  means I have to start getting ready at 4:30, which is why I’m mostly wearing sweats and listening to The Art of Noise as I teach my son to fold laundry when I could be in THE COMPANY OF GIANTS.

But occasionally, there’s an event right at my doorstep that blows me out of the water, thanks to my local bookstore which happens to be one of Canada’s best indies.  Tuesday saw the Women of the Short Story tour (from Biblioasis) stop at Bryan Prince Bookseller, where Rebecca Rosenblum, Cathy Stonehouse, and Laura Boudreau read from their story collections. I’d only read Rosenblum’s book prior to the event, but I’m remedying my omission as I write this post.

It was a wonderful evening. Each of the writers had different styles and different strengths–Boudreau almost gave a performance (I’m guessing she has a theatre minor, or at least some sort of stage experience), for she captured the cadences and attitude of her protagonist, a twelve-year-old girl who’s figured out a way to buy cigarettes without getting caught, with pleasing exactitude.  Stonehouse’s delivery was more deadpan–she’d sneak in these great lines and I’d pause, wondering if I’d heard right–and it was perfect for a piece about a woman who discovers she can speak to a dog.  In Rosenblum’s case, I was most invested in hearing how she read what she’d written–it was fascinating to note what she chose to emphasize and what she didn’t, and how my interpretation stacked up against the author’s original vision.

Oh, there was wine, and some very nice cheeses, which I might call artisan if I had any European genes.

And what’s a blog post about a reading without pictures? Courtesy the affable Ray Boudreau, we have photographs! And thanks to me, you have excerpts, all manually entered for this post.

Rebecca Rosenblum

“The evening was much the same as any. He showered and checked his email in his bathrobe (his brother updating his birding life list; lawyer-joke forward from former colleague; thanks from the young turks at the office for projections he’d sent). Then he watched The National while sitting on the foot of the bed, until there was a story about Kim Jong Il’s plutonium stores. Laurence shivered, and flipped off the set before the human-interest story about llamas, which weren’t human anyway, and slept quietly on his side of the bed. He dreamt of kimchi, a food he had never eaten but was surely vile.

But it was only the next morning that things really started to go to hell.

He did seven crossword clues waiting for toast before recalling that Syl kept the toaster was unplugged for fear of electrical fires. Straight from the fridge, the butter was hard and punctured the bread. He forgot to make the tea until he wanted to drink it, and then the first bag he found turned out to be utterly not Earl Grey but something gingery that promised, upon inspection of the packet, to ease gas pains with natural effectiveness. He didn’t know what that meant or what this product was doing in his home.” —The Big Dream.

Laura Boudreau

“You look beautiful, someone says to someone else. And it must be true because there can be no lies on a patio where people are whole-face laughing about a punch line that goes, But I thought you were writing a novel! I look around to make certain, and sure enough, we are beautiful. Even the man in the rumpled brown suit who is spilling his glass of wine is beautiful. He pinballs around the party, bumping into chairs and bouncing off elbows, veering towards a woman in a short skirt and particularly freckled legs. I am a poet, he tells her, emphasizing the “am”. Yes, I believe you, the woman says.  She says it with the sort of kindness that only comes from concerned strangers and friends who have seen you naked.” — Suitable Precautions

Cathy Stonehouse

“When she left the bank, her plan had been to open an attraction, lay it out along the front lawn. Derek had just been laid-off from his job as station-master, now that the company had introduced self-serve: sleek, digital ticket dispensers that required maintenance only once a week. People pay money to view attractions and she still had her pride, was determined to provide Derek and herself with a source of income, albeit one that did not necessitate her leaving the house.  Her original goal, she admits, was over-ambitious: a scale model of England circa 1972. Since Derek left, she has scaled back, is focusing instead on three dioramas, each entitled The England That Could Have Been. She still believes she can find a way to display them. One can go in the hall, one in the living room, the third in the kitchen, with perhaps a tea-shop situated out back.  Tourists often stop off for meals, en route to the Lake District, and she could put up a sign on the motorway: Cream Teas and Miniature Propaganda.” —Something About the Animal.

I relish discovering resonances between a writer’s work and my own experiences, both as a reader and in life, and I struck gold this time around.  Towards the end of the evening, I made the connection that Cathy Stonehouse co-edited a book about motherhood that was gifted to me shortly after the birth of my child, back when I was in a losing battle with the fanged beast produced by the marriage of social expectations of parenting with my own inadequacies as a mother.  (I still struggle, but the beast’s claws have indeed blunted with time). Double Lives is an anthology of courageous, sympathetic,  unsentimental pieces about being a mother, and I’ve gifted many copies of this wonderful book to mom-friends. If you are interested in this topic, do check out Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood.

No pictures of the wine and cheese, alas. But you can see how lovely the store is, and if you ever visit my city, I promise to take you there, and let you buy me a book.

What I’m reading: Toronto, Iceland, Africa

I wonder if publishers realize just how much influence a good literary blog wields on reader choice? All my reads this week were prompted by mentions on other blogs.

1. Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason: I heard about this superb Icelandic crime writer on Flippism is the Key, and immediately read all of his work; I requested this one from the library after a recent FitK review. The publisher blurb doesn’t quite do justice to the depth of the writing, but here it is anyway:

“In a flat near Reykjavik city centre, a young man lies dead in a pool of blood although there are no signs of a break-in or any struggle. A woman’s purple shawl, found under the bed, gives off a strong and unusual aroma. A vial of narcotics found in the victim’s pocket among other clues soon lead Erlendur’s colleagues down a trail of hidden violence and psychological brutality, and of wrongs that will never be fully righted.”

If you haven’t read Indridason’s work, pick it up now, especially if you like Ruth Rendell or P.D.James.

2.  The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum:  I asked the publisher to send me this collection of interlinked stories about the absurdity (and, okay, the essential horror) of cubicle life after reading about it on Pickle Me This.  Here’s an excerpt from one of the pieces “How to Keep Your Day Job”, which I found unbearably awesome.

“Smile as you turn off the alarm. Smile on the bus. Smile in the lobby. Smile at your desk.

Put your full name on all paperwork, even though your boyfriend makes fun of your middle name. Accept whatever desk you are given, even if it is in a hallway. Laugh at whatever jokes you are told, even if they seem sort of mean to gay people.

Work hard.

Don’t work so hard that you don’t take a lunch. The first day, bring something interesting to eat, although nothing that smells weird. Then wait and see if people invite you to eat with them. Interesting food will give people something to talk to you about if they invite you to eat with them. If they don’t, eat your complicated odourless sandwich alone at your desk at 2:30.”

I received my copy of The Big Dream today (thanks, Biblioasis!) and am all shivery with anticipation.

3. Opening Spaces edited by Yvonne Vera: This wonderful collection of contemporary African women’s writing came to my notice on ImageNations, where I left a comment lamenting that I couldn’t find it in my library. Shazaam! A local blogger (Amy) lent me her copy.  The stories in this book highlight a  diversity of experiences and voices, and they are packed with irony, with anger and with humor. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

“African women are seldom given the space to express their concerns, their ideas and their reflections about the societies in which they live. In situations where a good woman is expected to remain silent, literature can provide an important medium for the expression of deeply-felt and sometimes shocking views. In this anthology the award-winning author Yvonne Vera brings together the stories of many talented writers from different parts of Africa. The act as witnesses to the dramas of private and public life. Their stories challenge contemporary attitudes and behaviour, leaving no room for complacency.”