Rebecca Rosenblum's first book of short stories, Once, won acclaim for its sharp, witty illuminations of the lives of young people under pressure. In The Big Dream, her second collection, the pressure is more intense. Characters from Once resurface, a little older but scarcely better off. Work takes up most of their waking hours, cannibalizes their private and inner lives, spawns alliances that are not quite friendships, and never pays quite enough.
Most of these stories are set in the offices of a lifestyle-magazine publishing company, Dream Inc., whose employees are subject to the peculiar stresses of white-collar work: Technologically connected but physically isolated in their cubicles, they're deluged by e-mails and corporate memos while they fret about downsizing. In keeping with the times, economic instability is a constant theme, anxiety the default emotion.
The overlap of characters and accretion of detail between stories is like office gossip. In one story, you may be teased by a snatch of conversation or the brief glimpse of a weeping woman packing up her desk. A character who is first introduced as the signature on a brisk, impersonal memo is fully fleshed out several stories later as a grieving daughter or hung-over, anxious CEO.
As I read and reread these stories, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Rosenblum connects her characters to their environment and to each other. The background is hyper-real, thick with specific, quotidian details: post-SARS hospital sanitation guidelines, Iranian pizza, Payless shoes, Netflix subscriptions. If anyone were to make a movie from this book, it would be difficult to swap Toronto for New York or Boston even though the physical settings consist mostly of parking lots or sensory-deprivation cubes.
The most successful stories are those most closely and subtly tied both to the office and the characters' emotional lives. Cheese Eaters, in which a woman's hectic working day is derailed by a frantic call from her ex-husband, packs a punch so unexpected it brought tears to my eyes.
In Complimentary Yoga, a nerve-racking satire, Grigor's halting English and fraying temper cost him his job at a call centre soon to be outsourced anyway. The story ends on a note of ominous tension, but is bleakly funny throughout: "At work, at the end of his Thursday shift, he gets a call from a lady whose English is worse than his. It ends with her screaming that the postman never comes, the postman is garbage, GARBAGE. She sounds about one hundred and three but she sure can scream and he yells right back at her. Clearly, this man is in the wrong job, but it's a job that might not be right for anyone."
Less convincing stories, such as Sweet, about a retired executive and his elderly neighbour, nonetheless contain images – a nurse's aide pilots her stroke-impaired charge through a doorway, like "a nymph dancing with a tree" – so evocative that they vibrate.
Rosenblum is an elegant stylist and spiky humorist; her language is precise, her ear for dialogue almost faultless. Her characters are alone or lonely, frail stoics who may hope for rescue but certainly don't expect it. I found myself yearning for more connection, less deprivation on their behalf, and wasn't sure if their plight was part of her uncompromising world view, or a consequence of working at Dream Inc. I suspect both. This is the way the world is now, she seems to be saying. Stop dreaming. Wake up.
Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's first novel was No Place Strange (2009). Since she can't write short stories to save her life, she's at work on another novel, Tunapuna.