Rich and Poor is a parable on the problem with capitalism
Jacob Wren's novel uses two characters to take a philosophical look at class inequality
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“My spare room funds my expeditions,” states an outdoor adventurer named Jeff in a new Airbnb billboard near the foot of Yonge Street in Toronto. It’s part of the company’s first major ad campaign in Canada as the so-called disruptive American businesses gain a foothold here.
While the sharing economy is praised by self-described hustlers for allowing us all to become entrepreneurs, author Jacob Wren sees it as a troubling form of “turbo capitalism,” forcing us to monetize all aspects of our lives — our homes, cars, and friendships.
“You used to just be able to live in your home but now you have to rent it out every time you leave in order to survive,” says Wren, 44, who lives in Montreal.
Wren’s new novel, Rich and Poor (Bookthug, $20), is more than a critique of capitalism and profit-obsessed society.
It’s a parable examining corporate culture — the way it makes us calculating, unscrupulous and ultimately disposable. Even the billionaire executive realizes “no matter how talented, qualified or indispensable I think I might be, there’s always someone else who can do the job.”
Inspired by the discourse started by the Occupy movement, Wren says he’s intrigued by the discussion caused by the popular protest, and more recently the Panama Papers.
“I remember before Occupy talking to some not particularly ‘left’ friends, and them all saying shut up about capitalism, no one talks about that anymore,” says Wren.
“As Occupy was bringing questions of wealth and inequality into the public and creating new terms like The One Per Cent, suddenly the same people were willing to talk about capitalism and think about what it is and think about how much money is actually being hoarded in offshore accounts.”
Wren says these are important issues for his generation, which is said to have less money and fewer opportunities than their parents.
The two main narrators are only known to the reader as No. 1 — the billionaire — and No. 2, a talented pianist who now washes dishes for a living.
No. 2 seeks revenge for the way life has betrayed him, and so he decides that “The poor must kill the rich, one at a time, at every opportunity.” He wants to strangle No. 1 with piano wire, and set an example for others to imitate.
Wren read popular business books and CEO biographies to help develop character No. 1, a brilliant executive who memorizes all his employees names and is unusually candid about his company’s misconduct.
He says it was a pleasure to write from this perspective, though he admits the mashup is not going to be recognizable as any single person, either living or in popular culture.
“I don’t think any actual capitalist will think I’ve gotten them right,” says Wren. “It’s a very biased, playful mischievous take on that kind of character, and that kind of larger-than-life figure who rejoices in being a capitalist and also is willing to admit all the problems of it,” he says.
In many ways, Rich and Poor is a parody of the typical capitalist villain, says Wren.
For instance, No. 1 considers finding another “trophy wife” but at his age decides it’s in bad taste, instead opting for a prostitute because he sees a “pure economic transaction” as “the most clean, the most precise, method of fulfilling desires and needs.”
If there’s commonality between the two narrators, it’s in the way both seem unable to maintain relationships and their dysfunctional view on friendship.
No. 2 defines a friend as someone who can “betray you more savagely, more painfully, than anyone else in the world.” For this reason, he seeks imitators, not friends.
Meanwhile, No. 1 stabs his best friend in the back to save himself.
“We could say this is kind of the ultimate capitalist maneuver — to keep your wealth by betraying those closest to you,” says Wren.