Class of Generation U

Rich and Poor, Jacob Wren’s most recent novel, traces the contours of the ever-widening chasm between wealth and poverty in the globalized West. It follows the lives of two men, each an unnamed narrator: the one, an aging Baby Boomer, an executive of a mammoth multinational; the other, an ambitious Millennial, precariously employed and hell-bent on revenge. Wren’s third novel demonstrates the shifting attitudes, on both sides of the divide, toward the class conflict of the twenty-first century. As much about the journey toward maturation—of the temperance of vengeance into justice, the conversion of greedy self-interest into altruism, and the transformation from radicalization toward social organization—as it is about the dire need for economic reform, Rich and Poor provides a surprisingly insightful and deeply sympathetic characterization of the values and attitudes of both classes, with its first-person narration softening readers, whatever their material conditions, toward two figures often demonized in the popular imagination: the ruthless capitalist and the zealous activist.

This said, however, Rich and Poor can be a bit of a slog at times—slow to begin and occasionally riddled with long exposition that neither significantly develops character nor moves the plot forward. There is little distinction in voice between the character-narrators—a strength in Wren’s more colourful, zany, and comic Polyamorous Love Song, but a fault here. The novel-in-two-parts orients itself toward a popular audience; those with backgrounds in economics or political theory may find Wren’s jargon unbelievable, his concepts oversimplified, and his solutions to social injustice naive, even saccharine. The narrative does offer hope, however, for the amicable resolution of ideological differences—those, perhaps, between a son and his father—at this crucial historical moment in which the political climate grows ever more charged, disparate, and partisan. If anything, Rich and Poor is an interesting read and shouldn’t be neglected for its few shortcomings.

Meredith Quartermain, however and as always, cannot disappoint with her new novel, U Girl. Recognition of Quartermain’s versatility leads to astonishment at her oeuvre. The contrast is sharp, for instance, between the dreamy flights of the poetic prose in I, Bartleby (her prior book, marketed as a collection of short stories) and the curt, realist prose of U Girl, which exhibits great restraint in the writing and shows Quartermain’s flexibility and mastery of her craft. U Girl is a Künstlerroman, set in 1970s Vancouver, that follows the development of an ambitious young student at the University (the “U” of U Girl) of British Columbia, Frances Nelson, as she forges an understanding of her purpose as an author and intellectual. As an aspiring author, Frances models her novel, Turquoise Room, on her favourite texts from her courses in literature, slotting the characters of her daily life into the narratives of Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, almost to farcical effect. Frances attempts (and, with the metafictional production of U Girl, succeeds) to develop a voice that is uniquely her own: that of a strong, independent woman not afraid to break with tradition and social expectation.

The pleasure of reading U Girl comes from the dramatic irony produced with recognition of the naïveté of each of its characters, including its protagonist. Rather than ridicule them, however, the novel gracefully acknowledges the limitations of each, creating foils to Frances’ own pursuits: the risk that she, like Carla, might find herself stuck in a dead-end job; or, like Cheyenne, in an abusive relationship; or, like Lorna, with an unexpected pregnancy and deadbeat husband—predicaments highlighting the obstacles not only to Frances’ pursuit of autonomy and authorship, but also to women’s achievement in Canada during the era of second-wave feminism more generally. Likewise, U Girl establishes a tension between high and low art forms, with each character defined by his or her taste in culture. We find Dwight’s Pink Floyd and Allen Ginsberg pitted against Nigel’s John Fowles and D. H. Lawrence; Carla’s The Secret Woman against Frances’ Jane Eyre; and Dagmar’s postmodern poems against the masturbatory verse of her male contemporaries. Rather than alienating readers, however, this inclusion of high and low culture creates a literary atmosphere in which all readers, no matter their background or education, can participate alongside Frances in her struggles toward independence—romantic, intellectual, material, and otherwise—identifying with her trials, sympathizing with her affections, and gaining strength from her heroism.

This review “Class of Generation U” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 176-177.

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