Among the many charms that made Once, Rebecca Rosenblum’s 2008 debut, such an outstanding book, was the way the author wrote about jobs. From a fruit factory to a hotel laundry, from an IT department to a bookstore, Once was filled with genuine, vivid observations of the world of work, capturing both the loathing and the grudging affection for the things we do to pay the rent.
But whereas Once featured a grab-bag of jobs, the focus of Rosenblum’s second collection, The Big Dream, is on office work. These thirteen stories are linked by a single employer: Dream, Inc., a lifestyle magazine publisher. Besides the hallways and cubicles and cluttered lunchroom refrigerators, the characters in The Big Dream are also connected by the pursuit of balance; balance between work and family, work and lovers, ex-lovers, health, and everything else that makes up a life.
Balance, of course, is subject to interpretation, and Rosenblum presents a variety of circumstances from story to story. In “Dream Big,” Clint has come to the end of his post-hire probationary period but, due to a series of administrative oversights, hasn’t been made a permanent employee yet and, just as importantly, hasn’t been added to the company’s group insurance plan. Lest he jeopardize his impending status upgrade, he accepts any and all overtime requests. The need for dental work to treat a persistently aching wisdom tooth only increases Clint’s willingness to comply. This puts him in a bad spot with his girlfriend, Virgie, who complains his work is interfering with “real life.” Dejected, Clint suggests that work, in fact, is real life.
The other side of this coin is Laurence Brunswick, sixty-six years old and recently retired, who, in “Sweet,” uses work to avoid real life. Unaccustomed to so much free time and recovering from knee surgery, Laurence is not adapting well to his new situation. He finds purpose and self-worth, however, in the email consultations he continues to provide some of his former colleagues at Dream, Inc. A trip overseas that his wife plans to visit their son, daughter-in-law, and newly born grandson only represents more chaos and uncertainty for Laurence. His consultation work turns into a convenient excuse; he insists he must remain behind to help “the boys at the office.” Left to his own devices, though, Laurence finds it more difficult than ever to order his life. An errand his wife leaves for him – to deliver a pie to elderly neighbour Corey Carbone – provides some direction and as well as some unexpected, if crabby, camaraderie.
Rosenblum is an entertaining master of minutia. She has a prodigious ability to take ordinary details and restyle or adorn them in just the slightest way, transforming the mundane into the eccentric. The stories in The Big Dream come alive with orange-juice stained pillows, Zellers jeans, and jam sandwiches. And while on the subject of jam sandwiches (for which this reviewer, in the interest of full disclosure, wishes to declare a particular affection for), Rebecca Rosenblum is one of literary Canada’s funniest food comedians. A jam sandwich, we learn, isn’t “a real sandwich, just bread with red.” Delicious. Rosenblum also displays impressive, encyclopaedic knowledge of pre-packaged, processed food products, her characters’ diets supplemented by the likes of Crackerz’n’cheze, pudding cups, Craisins, Snackwiches, and Lunchables. They may not eat like gourmets, but we discover they do have some standards. In “After the Meeting,” a recently laid off Dream worker with budget concerns is willing to lower himself to domestic beer and pizza from “this Iranian place by the highway,” but steadfastly refuses to buy generic Jos Louis because (well, obviously) “Metro brand is shit.”
Communication, understanding, and perception are themes Rosenblum began to explore in Once and takes up again in The Big Dream. In “Dream Big,” Clint’s throbbing tooth diminishes his ability to speak clearly, compounding his aforementioned complications at work and in his life outside it. In “Complimentary Yoga,” call centre employee and native Russian speaker Grigori is in trouble because his limited English skills not only cause him to fail at his job, but also to misread the intentions of his supervisor – and object of Grigori’s affection – when she repeatedly summons him to her office to discuss his performance. “Loneliness” deals with a communication failure of another kind, when two people want the same thing – namely, each other – but struggle to find the words or opportunity to make it happen. This story, incidentally, contains the most interesting erotic sentence I’ve come across in some time. It’s a brilliant, short sentence that is at once passionate, hilarious, and wonderfully odd. I’ll not spoil it by quoting it here, but I will say that it involves a common form of ID.
The Big Dream features, naturally for a collection focused on work, an ample supply of interactions between colleagues, between bosses, and between colleagues and bosses. Rosenblum’s natural timing and ear for dialogue helps her to manage potentially unwieldy scenes involving groups larger than two. Some of the book’s strongest stories, while still in Dream, Inc.’s orbit, are stories in which family groups play a major role. Readers of Once will recognize Theo and Rae and their children, young Jake and the blind baby Marley, who reappear in “Waiting for Women” and “Cheese-Eaters.” This is the family post-breakup, juggling childcare and all of its particulars between separated parents. “This Weather I’m Under” is a touching look at a family dealing with the imminent death of one of its members. It’s told from the perspective of Belinda, Dream Inc.’s busy and stressed out HR director, who finds herself back beneath the sway of family after a period of self-imposed distance from her mother and sister. “The Anonymous Party” is a heartfelt story of a love relationship in its infancy, but also includes a marvellous family breakfast scene that, in relatively few words, suggests so much history and so many intricacies that it would be no great surprise to see these characters revisited in a future Rosenblum story or stories. The same can be said for “Sweet.” While a comprehensive short story on its own, and in my opinion the collection’s best, “Sweet” possesses great breadth and depth outside of the linear line Laurence Brunswick follows to bring a pie from his house to Corey Carbone’s. For a writer with a propensity for reusing, with success, her characters, “Sweet,” like “The Anonymous Party,” hints at something more in store.
In taking on office work as a theme, The Big Dream thoroughly succeeds, and it does so with both humour and heart. Just as significantly, however, is the fact that these are contemporary stories. In their characters, situations, and settings, readers will find several recognizable aspects as well as ones that are, though no less authentic, more unfamiliar. It’s this melding of the two that contributes to a larger conception of the world we are living in. Rebecca Rosenblum is a gifted chronicler of our time, in our time.
Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize.