What’s in a title? When it comes to Jake Swan’s entertaining novel Grantrepreneurs – a clever portmanteau referring to entrepreneurial whiz-kids who fund their numerous wheeling-dealings solely through whatever government grants they can accrue – then you have an excellent window into the mercenary version of modern-day Vancouver where Swan’s tale unfolds.
The narrative is told through the diary entries of Nicholas, a young physician from New Brunswick who relocates to Vancouver to take a job as a researcher in a new medical centre, Nova Health. He shows up at the apartment of three of his co-workers, Ray, Michael and Clara, with whom he will be living. They all have a knack for working various angles to make money. Ray shoots rock pigeons with a BB gun from the roof of their apartment complex and gets $10 for every dead bird from the building’s management. Michael builds various apps, such as one that locates umbrellas that have been discarded in dumpsters across the city for anyone caught in a rainstorm without one. And Clara? I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say she knows a lot of powerful people.
When they arrive at their place of employment, now renamed A.I. Plus Womxn’s Health Solutions (a name which makes the centre eligible for a number of available grants), a major press conference, covering the centre’s opening, is taking place. Nicholas and his new friends are ushered onto the stage where they are congratulated by the Prime Minister, whose breath smells oddly of cough syrup. Very quickly Nicholas susses out that not everything is as it seems. Swan’s dry satirical wit is on full display early on. After the press conference, where they meet their boss Mr. Singh, they inspect their new workplace and this exchange takes place:
A giant banner hung suspended over the atrium. “A.I. Plus Womxn’s Health Solutions. This is a green space.”
“Incredible,” Michael said. “They’ve really gone all out.”
“What makes it a green space?” I asked Ray.
“Mostly that banner,” he said.
“Look, it says right on it,” he explained.
“It’s sort of one of those ‘I think therefore I am’ kinds of thing,” Michael chipped in. “You’ll get used to it.”
Grantrepreneurs is populated by a number of strange and quirky characters, including a heroin-addicted and homeless accountant, a benevolent Chinese drug dealer and a vengeful journalist who wants to expose the shady dealings going on at the medical centre. CanLit darlings Douglas Coupland and Margaret Atwood also make appearances. Much of the intrigue, as well as the many deft jabs Swan takes at modern Canadian culture, revolves around a koi pond. One of my favourite moments of weirdness is when Nicholas realizes how much Ritalin Michael takes:
“Wait,” I said. “Are you saying the Ritalin is actually making decisions for you? Uh, I’m not sure that’s healthy, Michael.”
“It sure feels that way,” he said.
“Right now, am I talking to Michael, or Michael’s Ritalin?” I asked.
“Gosh,” he shrugged. “It’s kind of hard to tell.”
“What an unusual conversation this is,” I said. “There’s a distinct possibility that I’m talking to a chemical.”
“We’re always talking to chemicals,” Ray said.
“That’s a good point,” Michael said.
After this exchange, the character is referred to as “Michael’s Ritalin” for most of the novel.
As barbed as Swan’s satirical thrusts can be, he also allows some of his characters to fall in love, form genuine friendships and even find the occasional moment of redemption. The contrast here is interesting, in terms of Swan’s story-telling technique. His characters are likable for the most part, even when they display the venal sides of their personalities. We root for them, even when we condemn their methods. Swan doesn’t judge his characters. He merely lets them get on with it in a world where one’s better and worst angels find themselves sharing the same living quarters and sometimes making strange bedfellows.
- Publisher : Galleon Publishing (Sept. 9 2023)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 176 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1778078176
- ISBN-13 : 978-1778078170
Steven Mayoff (he/him) was born in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2001. His books include the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009), the novel Our Lady of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015), the poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat (Grey Borders Books, 2018) and the poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone (Guernica Editions, 2019) and the novel The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief (Radiant Press, 2023). As a lyricist, he has collaborated with composer Ted Dykstra on Dion a Rock Opera, which will receive its world premiere at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto in February 2024.