Jacob Wren: Rich and Poor (Book Thug, 2016)
by Esmé Hogeveen
Rich and Poor is the story of a billionaire tycoon evaluating his life and career, and a pianist-turned-dishwasher who plans to murder, or at least sabotage him. In his latest novel-cum-social commentary, Montreal-based writer and performer Jacob Wren offers an alternately eviscerating and oblique examination of the role of wealth in shaping political subjects and community in late capitalist society.
Rich and Poor’s thematic focus on the ways in which wealth, or lack thereof, impels distinct experiences of identity and human relationships is reinforced by the formal dichotomy Wren develops between the titular classes. The narrative oscillates, chapter by chapter, between first-person accounts from the tycoon and the dishwasher. The protagonists’ narration commonly engages their respective encounters with monetary and social networks, the coalescence of these spheres – the workplace – constituting the site where the tycoon and the dishwasher interact.
Wren’s juxtaposition of “have” and “have- not” perspectives establishes a strong allegorical framework for the story, which, in turn, provides a tangible link to his corollary exploration of the limits of representing political and narrative perspective in fiction. As evoked by Rich and Poor’s dyadic title, Wren’s presentation reflects a prescient focus on the growing chasm between the masses and the “one-percent.” Though his political concerns are timely, and his narrative conceit engaging, Wren’s portrayals of wealth and relative poverty periodically veer toward polemic and nuance is sacrificed to form.
At times, it is as though the characters know themselves too well to appear convincingly grounded in the world of chaos, suffering and mercurial hope where Wren situates them. As the reader parses the tycoon’s and the dishwasher’s worldviews, the two men sometimes come across as more akin to props in an omniscient monologue than active participants in the novel’s reality. The ensuing detachment could arguably be interpreted as a means of re-engaging questions about allegorical affect. Nevertheless, the political heft of Rich and Poor would be more strongly administered if the reader was more invested in characters or plot.
Despite occasionally single-minded portraits of the tycoon’s and the dishwasher’s interiority, and an unexpectedly sentimental conclusion, Wren’s literary talent is on full display for the majority of Rich and Poor. His prose is enviably lapidary. Whether describing corporate players’ tacit creation of possible scapegoats or a revolutionary’s concomitant hubris and selflessness, Wren is a master of small details.1 Aphorisms seem to come easily to him. Observations like “Each man has to decide: a pleasant, empty life, or a difficult one but with meaning,” expressed by the dishwasher, initially hook the reader.2 However, as the narrative progresses, the proliferation of pithy, yet invulnerable, remarks begins to detract from plot urgency.
The ambiguity and ambivalence of relationships between members of the elite working class is a central topic of the tycoon’s narration, and the passages where Wren dissects these dynamics form several of Rich and Poor’s rhetorical highlights. Many of these sections revolve around the tycoon’s, and later also the dishwasher’s, relationships with Emmett, who is introduced as the tycoon’s lawyer and “[close] friend.”3 Early on in the novel, the tycoon gushes that Emmett “was often my bedrock, an eternal confidant who had my back when my better judgment was not in my own best interest” and compares him to a “son.”4 When the tycoon’s narration shifts from pre-published memoir to contemporary, informal contemplation, the reader learns that, after the memoir was published, the tycoon betrayed Emmett in order to secure a business deal. In retaliation, Emmett develops a rapport with the dishwasher, eventually supporting the dishwasher’s attempt to form a union that seeks reparations from one of the tycoon’s many affiliate companies.
It is telling, perhaps, that Rich and Poor’s three principal characters are male. (The widow of a felled revolutionary does become the dishwasher’s mentor after he is exiled to a remote town for trying to strangle the tycoon, but her role is secondary.) The observation of this gender imbalance is not intended as a critique, so much as a requisite note. As in a few of Wren’s recent narrations of the politically dispossessed, including Polyamorous Love Song (2014) and The Infiltrator (2013),5 there is a pronounced focus on the relationship between masculinity and control in Rich and Poor. There is also a consequent irony inherent to such a traditional grappling with identity politics. Doubtless, the novel’s binary form may be Wren’s way of making a similar observation about mainstream society’s limited visions of political futurity. Even so, a contemporary parable about wealth and power, opportunities and degradation, and the social infrastructures that support or prohibit certain kinds of freedom, would achieve greater resonance were it more critical of the limits of its own ideological paradigm.
In the end, the reader concedes the lofty goals of Rich and Poor and is drawn to a sustained consideration of its themes. Parallels between Rich and Poor and 19th-century fiction that chronicles social microcosms in order to humanize broader abstractions – Crime and Punishment and Pride and Prejudice come to mind – provide the reader with an alternate means of negotiating the text. Rich and Poor’s ubiquitous first-person narration reminds the reader that ours is an age of corporate spin, where professional and amateur criticisms commingle in online forums and reviews, but where, nonetheless, some voices are more powerful than others. The overt editorial presence in Rich and Poor continually recalls the reader to the task of how best to engage with parable, reminding us of the lessons being explored. This novel may be a commentary on wealth as a tool of two men’s making and unmaking, but it is also a story of what stands to be lost when certain voices are omitted.