May 2, 2017

J. C. Sutcliffe review of Rich and Poor in The Times Literary Supplement


Jacob Wren explores the boundaries and overlap between art, politics and fiction in his writing and filmmaking. On his blog, “A Radical Cut in the Texture of Reality”, he returns repeatedly to ideas of activism and, in particular, ending, subverting or re­organizing capitalism. But Wren never fully inhabits a fixed ideology: wherever his work takes a position, it also questions that position.

Wren’s previous works include Polyamorous Love Song (2014), a multi-narrative novel about resistance and identity in both artistic and political movements, and the fragmentary Families Are Formed Through Copulation (2007), by turns paranoid and cynical. His new novel, Rich and Poor, is perhaps more accessible than his earlier fiction, being told through a straightforward alternating narrative, but is equally replete with ideas. As the title suggests, one narrative follows the story of a poor person, a former concert pianist and current restaurant dishwasher who decides to kill the CEO of a massive corporation; the other narrative is the perspective of this billionaire CEO. In the first half, the poor character fails to kill the CEO despite having got a job with his company for this precise purpose. In the second half, he tries a rather different approach.

There are subtle echoes of each story in the other – confirmations, elaborations and contradictions. Both extreme positions are tempered by each character having experienced the other’s situation to a degree, and by their ability to understand, although not agree with, the other’s position. The rich man is presented not as some kind of unknowable, sociopathic enemy but as someone who makes compromises and accommodations like everyone else:
You drive your car knowing it is disastrous for the environment, and yet continue to drive anyway... You think it is terrible but not so terrible you are ready to drop everything and take action. Myself, I would prefer to run my business without any recourse to violence, but also, I have to admit, I don’t feel so strongly about it. And if I were to do so, it would be impossible to remain competitive. Profits would suffer.
In Rich and Poor form and content are an intriguing blend. It might seem odd to praise a writer known for surrealism and experimental forms for creating complex, believable characters, but Wren’s ability to do this allows him more leeway with some slightly improbable plot twists and a formal style that packs in a great deal of political argument. This is writing that campaigns against complacency while avoiding self-righteousness. Like Wren’s other work, this book is essentially not so much a call to action as a call for the reader to step away from apathy and to take seriously, however briefly, the most radical of positions.

[You can also find the above review here and here.]