The dream of a Marxist revolution is alive and well in Rich and Poor, Jacob Wren’s latest novel from BookThug, which published his previous novel, Polyamorous Love Song, one of the Globe and Mail’s best books of 2014. In Wren’s new novel, grief incites a former pianist to revolutionary action: kill the billionaire whose actions wronged him to inspire others to do the same. Using single-minded ambition, cold calculation and the piano wire in his pocket, his goal is to make wealth personal again. “We would only have to kill ten to start,” the pianist hazards, “to strike fear into the heart of every billionaire in the world.” Rich and Poor is a guilty pleasure for the 99 per cent, but politically, it offers no easy answers.
From page one, the story will have you by the throat. The novel is split in two parts and the narration alternates in these parts between the pianist and the billionaire. As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that the characters mirror each other in significant ways. Each man has a fair share of luck and undeserved opportunities, and ultimately, neither is hesitant to resort to violence to accomplish his goals. The conflict escalates to the point that by the end, there no longer seems to be a sufficient number of pages left to shut the story down, but Wren pulls it off. The ending is as happy as any reader can expect in a tale about class warfare, but if closure is what you’re looking for, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Character motivations remain elusive and the dust never has the chance to settle as the novel draws to a close, but that’s part of the fun.
The split narrative is not without its problems. Part one is set up as a dialogue between the pianist’s point of view and excerpts from the billionaire’s memoir. As the billionaire chronicles his navigation of the corporate jungle, his story is weaved into the pianist’s account of his successes and failures as he edges closer to revenge. In part two, the dialogue changes. The pianist’s narration continues from his own point of view, but the billionaire begins to tell his side of the story in the same way, in the first person. The change comes unannounced, and it means ten years have passed since the time he wrote his memoir to the pianist’s present. Readers may find themselves forced to flip back a few pages to figure out what exactly is going on.
This is not Wren’s first deviation from conventional storytelling. Stylistically, Rich and Poor is an evolution from his previous work toward a more accessible narrative structure. The experimentalism that Keith Cadieux points out in his review of Polyamorous Love Song is present in Wren’s new novel, but here it feels artfully awkward. There is an occasional similarity between Rich and Poor‘s two narrative voices that can leave the reader unsure which narrator is telling the story. Likewise, the billionaire’s direct addresses to the reader in the first half are consistent with the memoir format, but can be disruptive as a result of their proximity to, and incongruence with, the pianist’s narrative style. The technique works as an incitement to Brechtian estrangement, and in this way achieves what it sets out to do. When the novel picks up again in the second half and the memoir format is discarded, the change feels abrupt. Artistic choices like this one occasionally trip up the reader, but the story is easy enough to pick up again, and overall, the book is hard to put down.
Rich and Poor is also, at times, perplexingly conventional for an otherwise unconventional novel. In a number of places Wren uses familiar plot devices, like a heart attack at the bargaining table or a nondisclosure agreement obstructing justice. The story as a whole is a variation of the American monomyth: when the institutions in place to combat evil fail, a hero rises from among the common folk to seek justice, returning to his kin when the task is complete. But the familiar structure doesn’t confine Rich and Poor to a derivative story. The final scene may call to mind a softer moment from The Hunger Games, but the reader will never see it coming.
Artistic but accessible, familiar but different, Wren’s risks pay off. He does some interesting things with his novel without alienating the casual reader. Rich and Poor is highly recommended for anyone who has had revenge fantasies about a corporation and wants to indulge that anger rather than look for political answers.
BookThug | 240 pages | $20.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1771662383