Works of Art on the Art of Work

Two story collections map today’s nine-to-five realities

Art responds to work in Cary Fagan’s My Life among the Apes and Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream, two recent short-story collections set in and around Toronto, where so many Canadians go to find jobs. In an age when Canada’s finance minister declares that “there is no bad job” and when the minister of labour similarly opines that the economy should be considered an essential service to be protected from strikes, one of the major debates in this country is whether work is unquestionably good and even essential for everyone. Whereas these politicians might want to dissuade people from negotiating, assessing and interpreting work, the books under review offer a different suggestion: that our jobs and the economy would benefit more from creative thinking than from political strictures.

Not that either Rosenblum or Fagan subjects the reader to a political harangue. Their stories are about human beings whose minimal control over the economy drives their attempts to compensate, sometimes through art. Fagan’s My Life among the Apes implies that if economic and artistic production were on a smaller scale we would be able to bear capitalism and other systems more easily. Rosenblum is being ironic in The Big Dream in describing the multinational corporation as a cultural wasteland, but she is generally sympathetic to everyone, including the bosses.

The main plot of The Big Dream will be familiar. All the stories are about the people at Dream Inc., a company in the process of outsourcing its Canadian operation, which supports a series of thematically related “lifestyle magazines” such as Dream Wedding. It is a company in which to “dream big” is to hope that “we might someday work near a mall with a food court.” In spite of these depressing expectations, some champions of economic dream-work still exist, but here such enthusiasm is overcome by the malaise of characters who generally cannot accept or explain the contrast of reality and dreams.

In My Life among the Apes, the aspirations are sometimes like those in Rosenblum’s book. One character hopes to start over in suburbia, learning meanwhile to play Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” for the open mic at the bar. He says, “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to create something so yearning, so egotistical, so perfect.” Maybe he cannot imagine it because his job as a salesman for Big Pharma never demands or rewards it. He is not Cohen, and the suburban property that he wants cannot be had for a song. Fagan writes, vividly, that as the character strums the first chord on his newly strung guitar “the room expands with sweet fullness.” The character loves the music but can only make it work for him partially and on a personal level. Artistic talent might be a type of cultural capital that helps to diversify an economy, but Fagan implies that globalization has only one bottom line.

As a result, culture depreciates. In the age of the multinational corporation, the meanings of “capital” and “value” have become singular in spite of the diversity globalization is supposed to create. Although the best employers would foster the different perspectives of the ethnically varied staff at Dream Inc., some of the jobs in The Big Dream only justify and serve corporate products: “Without Quark, the job pretty much didn’t exist.” The employees themselves lack initiative and are never encouraged to bring their own lunches, so they eat Crackerz’n’cheze, M&Ms, KFC—calories with little nutrition, symbolizing the short-term gains and long-term deficiencies of their jobs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, according to The Big Dream, dissatisfying jobs are part of the North American identity.

A cultural identity crisis would therefore seem inevitable, and, midway through the book, we meet a character who does not even have a name. In “Research,” the satire promised in the advance praise for The Big Dream becomes both more interesting and more absurdly obvious: the main character goes to work and her entire department has been fired, their cubicles being dismantled even as she tries to discover where everyone went. “Research” is the name not only of the story but also of the allegorical main character, who is a symbolic writer, too: “She wondered about their happiness, their lunches, their lives. These were trying times, and she was curious about how other people were tried.” If her researcher is an artist, Rosenblum implies that scholarship and literature are significant and good for both each other and a society whose trials must be considered. In a book that can be too realistically superficial, “Research” stands out as a story with a twist that changes the focus from work to art.

The characters in My Life among the Apes have comparatively obvious interests in art, and I prefer this book to The Big Dream partly because the idealist in me wants people to recognize that art helps us to reimagine life through dreams that are not always about working for money or promotions. Almost every story in My Life among the Apes ends by evoking an intangible object of longing: a holiday, an ocean, heaven, somewhere “good” but “beyond,” “what they were hoping for and what they didn’t find.”

Obviously, dreams in art can be disappointed in reality. Fagan introduces the theme of art versus work in “The Floating Wife” when a doctor compares her husband’s career as a judge with his post-retirement job as a magician. As the narrator, she finds his magic to be disreputable and immature, unlike his legal work: “What I thought, standing alone in my kitchen: boys, they’re still and always boys. You must understand that I hated magic.” Although she is in a traditionally maternal space, this is paternalism—and not so different from the attitude suggested by our finance minister’s claim about jobs, although I assume he would approve of any paying job, artistic or otherwise. Art, as work (noun or verb), can be a social good, but in this collection Fagan implies that when artists dare to make art work they have to die, symbolically or in reality.

A vital question is central to “The Little Underworld of Edison Weise,” which concludes My Life among the Apes by suggesting that a business can have a positive social function if it is good for people of all classes. Edison is a café employee whose parents believe that he could do better. His stutter is a welcome and significant change from the consistent voice of the rest of the book. When he talks to himself, however, his speech flows, even if this is a non sequitur: “I’ve read too many books. Who knows what people want? A job is a job, that’s all.”

Although Edison is patient with his very mean boss and has an admirable desire to activate the craftsmanship of a vintage espresso machine, I am inclined to disagree with him here. Many people cannot separate their work from their lives. Edison claims not to know what others want, but he knows what he wants, opposing his parents to serve traditional espresso and ensure the openness of the café. If he were real, and to the extent that he is a real influence, I would worry that he might agree with the finance minister, whose claim is an oversimplification that discourages us from being critical of the effect of our jobs on our lives or how employers and other leaders treat us. We need the work of art to question and express alternatives to the single issue of the economy.