Rich and Poor by Jacob Wren

Rich and Poor by Jacob Wren

I picked up Rich and Poor at the Book Thug tent at Word on the Street. Struck at first by its beautiful cover, the synopsis really hooked me with its brutal honesty: “Rich and Poor is a novel of a man who washes dishes for a living and decides to kill a billionaire as a political act.” That charged, direct approach to action comes back time and again in the novel, but the nakedness of the speech doesn’t make it any less interesting to read. Instead, politics and theory are tackled in a conversational way making for an entertaining and thoughtful novel.

The billionaire, known only as 1, is highly self-aware of his role in capitalism, even referring to his own company as the “mouth of the beast”. The purported hero, known as 2, is similarly obsessed with capitalism, only his desire is to murder 1 and hopefully inspire a movement of imitators who will unseat the 1% by killing more billionaires.

“Poetry, like business, is full of tricks and cliches,” says 1. This concept of the repetitive and known becoming profound and vice versa speaks volumes of the novel itself. The plot is in many ways clichéd. A story about a morally corrupt corporate executive and a man who has lost it all due to the greed of business. By refraining from naming the characters Wren makes the cliché more apparent, but also opens up the text to focus on the system responsible for the dynamic of the two. What the protagonists represent is more important than who they are as individuals, but they are still well-developed characters with a rich background story and emotional scope.

The line also serves as a warning to readers to beware of when the protagonists wax poetic and what remains hidden. For example, this piece on capitalism as told to the reader by 1:

Capitalism is not the simple desire to make a profit. Capitalism is the fantasy that growth can continue at a consistent rate indefinitely. When a child is young, it cannot yet imagine being an adult, so it thinks it will keep going forever. The fantasy that you can grow forever is exhilarating, one of the many aspects that make children seem so alive. We live in fantasy, all of us, all of the time, to a greater or lesser extent.

The beautiful prose each character speaks in cannot be trusted. Wren masterfully tells a political story about wealth and class divides through the perspectives of, not one, but two unreliable narrators. It is a not a thriller but action-packed prose which examines the thoughts, morals, and beliefs of a billionaire and his would-be killer before hurtling into action as suddenly as a car crash. At times the theorizing of each character lulled me to boredom with its generally slow pace but then the novel made me sit up in bed, riveted by shocking turns.

As a result, Rich and Poor tells a story that everyone knows in a way that is still surprising and fresh. Wren orchestrates a symphony of characters in an economic machine which is so familiar and topical that you feel implicated in the conflict as a reader.

Also worth noting, this novel is a gorgeous book. The pages are smooth and a good weight, the type-setting is top notch and the cover a beautiful piece of art by John McConville. Not something I always mention but it feels more important given the story and the context of the novel as a commercial item. The capitalism in the book is as real as the cover of the book itself.

A finalist for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction handed out by the Quebec Writers’ Federation, Rich and Poor is not to be missed. This is perhaps one of the most important Canlit novels out right now for these economic times.