Book review: Is The Big Dream worth striving for?

By Paul Beriault

One glance at the back cover of The Big Dream almost loses a reader amidst a sea of capitalist jargon.

Terms like “Vice President of Human Resources,” “Corporate Branding Specialist” and the especially damning phrase “a new generation discovering itself in the workplace” immediately inspire the fuzzy and detached state of semi-attentiveness that might overtake you as you reach for a half-muddied copy of Metro on the CTrain.

After only a few pages into this collection of short stories, though, a reader will realize that fiction about corporate culture isn’t boring, but actually very engaging — and unsettling.

Set in Toronto and centred around the fictional magazine publishing office of Dream, Inc., the collection of 13 vignettes in Rebecca Rosenblum’s second book remind us that — oh, yeah — most of our waking moments are spent working. Rosenblum is most interested, though, in how the tense strain built up through these moments ends up spilling over into those few precious snippets of free time not spent on the job.

The finest moment of the collection comes when the physical pain and financial insecurity of a recent college grad with an abscessed tooth are described with disarming pathos.

In the story “Dream Big,” an I.T. worker named Cliff suffers from debilitating toothache while simultaneously having his probationary period repeatedly extended. This delays his eligibility for the benefits package he needs to afford the dentist and forces him to work through excruciating pain in order to pay the premiums on his student loans. His girlfriend leaves him because he takes on overtime work to avoid the displeasure of his employers.

The story concludes with the climax of Cliff’s dental emergency: “Cliff didn’t mind the pain, or his underground apartment with no Virgie to visit. He didn’t hear the hum of the fluorescent lights, the rush of traffic, the rustle of mice in the wall. Cliff felt only the relief of the fluid bursting against the roof of his mouth.”

Another story, “After the Meeting,” tells the tale of a diverse group of men laid off from a call centre that was outsourced to India. After receiving the news, they all pile into a car and drive to someone’s apartment for pizza.

Soon, though, relationships formed under the cold safety of fluorescent lights start to unravel. Racial and homosexual slurs are hurled, as each person realizes they have no money, no employment, and now, nothing to bond their social group together.

“All those eyes on me,” the narrator thinks, “everyone so angry, and yet the day before, playing Hacky Sack in the kitchen with that balled-up invoice, making fun of Patty Jacobson for calling Levi’s ‘designer jeans,’ even just an hour ago talking about how the Iranian pizza was okay and the Halal pepperoni was awesome. And then I realized it was over.”

Like all poignant fiction, The Big Dream forces the reader to use its themes to look introspectively at their own lives.

What’s most troubling about this book, however, is how centrally it places the corporate workplace in the lives of its characters. Furthermore, it’s downright depressing how helpless every one of these corporate personae are — from CEOs and telemarketers — to resist the enormous control that a “nine-to-five” has over their personal lives.

While reading, expect the eerie premonition that in a few years you’ll know intimately the struggles faced by the employees of Dream, Inc. In this way, The Big Dream is only a literary victory in the way it manages to connect a set of corporate dystopian nightmares that are disturbingly possible.


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