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The Big Dream

by Rebecca Rosenblum

The persistence of hope and humanity within the sometimes demoralizing grind of a corporate environment propels Rebecca Rosenblum’s new collection of linked short stories. Rosenblum followed her Metcalf-Rooke Award–winning 2008 debut collection, Once, with Road Trips, a pair of thematically connected stories published by B.C.-based artisan micropress Frog Hollow. Just as Road Trips revealed that going for a long drive is rarely about escapism, The Big Dream illustrates how people bring to bear every aspect of their emotional selves in a workplace.

The fictional jobsite is Dream, Inc., a Toronto lifestyle-magazine publisher. In 13 tonally varied stories, organized in a non-linear fashion, Rosenblum depicts the lives of Dream staff, from designers in neighbouring cubicles who rarely speak face-to-face to the pressured company head who drunkenly accepts random public blowjobs to the “universally loathed” men and women of tech support. Dream, Inc., also exemplifies a realistic portrait of modern Torontonians, which helps move The Big Dream beyond a simple satire of office politics. The staff is multicultural, and includes queers and people with fluid sexualities. They don’t always speak perfect English and some of them make a lot more money than others.

Themes of loneliness and alienation dominate, but Rosenblum’s characters are funny and human. Though not always named, they are distinct and engaging – especially the often angry and frustrated young men. In the story “Complimentary Yoga,” Grigori sexually objectifies his supervisor, Suyin, while remaining oblivious to the performance problems that imperil his job. The scene in which she fires him is simultaneously poignant and scary.

Slightly less successful is “Loneliness,” in which an extremely drawn-out courtship culminates in a sex scene that is awkward to read. In “After the Meeting,” a diverse group of laid-off customer-service reps, whose jobs have been outsourced to India, gather for pizza. The narrator’s voice is captivating and potent, but the story’s light plot relies too heavily on perceived ironies – that a gay man might be muscular and masculine, for instance, or that gays can be racist and people of colour homophobic.

The collection closes powerfully with “The Weather I’m Under,” in which Dream’s vice-president of HR struggles to balance some very daunting work tasks with attending to her mother’s terminal illness. Avoiding any tidy resolution, the story manages to encapsulate almost every theme explored elsewhere in the book. It’s lovely, moving writing.