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Working Class Zero

by Rob Payne

One of the challenges facing the contemporary novelist is to capture the complexities and absurdities of modern life without boring the reader. Rob Payne manages to do this and make us laugh too. In Working Class Zero (the title is a play on John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” anthem), Payne provides us with a scathing but surprisingly tender portrait of the corporate world, an entity he describes as a “giant body with flailing arms.”

Payne is one of the best observational humorists to crash the Toronto literary scene in a long time. Reminiscent of James Wallens’ Boys’ Night Out, a Canadian novel that featured an oppressed white male attempting to do the bar scene in Toronto, Working Class Zero deals with the inability of a particular type of maleness to bloom in hostile surroundings.

The plot zeroes in on Jay Thompson, a struggling wannabe rock star who finds himself trapped in corporate purgatory. There is a negligible plot here – boy is promoted laterally without a raise, boy is demoted, and boy loses job. His girlfriend is too busy to have sex with him, his Dad suspects he has bowel cancer, and his sloppy brother steals Jay’s dream of being a rock star. Thompson must bear all this while suppressing moral repugnance toward his co-workers and employers.

It is Payne’s description of day-to-day existence in a large corporation that really shines. He has taken Douglas Coupland’s concept of the McJob to its most extreme limit. Everyone can identify with the unreasonable expectations, disorganization, hypocrisy, incoherence, incompetence, and demoralization that Payne describes with great enthusiasm in this novel.

Working Class Zero is basically “a book about nothing,” just as the television show Seinfeld was about nothing. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Not exactly a novel, this hilarious post-Gen-X document is more of a lengthy and wonderful description of what it is like to be 30 years old and stuck.