June 2022

Noted

‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’

By Dion Kagan
Cover image of Paul Dalla Rosa’s ‘An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life’
Alienations and fantasies of escape unify the stories in Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection

A white-collar gay man, bored on a luxury holiday in Majorca, takes a bus to Palma and uses the Grindr app to buy extortionately priced drugs. An Australian actor, half-heartedly attempting to resuscitate her career in Hollywood, eats marijuana gummies to make things “soft around the edges”. A woman with a loathsome call-centre job shares a flat with a man who rejects her friendship overtures; he writes her a note saying he “would prefer to live separate but cohabited lives” and is “not comfortable with social interactions with a stranger”.

Alienations, both old and newfangled, are the unifying theme in these mordant, lurid little tales by Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa. So, too, are fantasies of escape and transformation, acted on with varying degrees of conviction. An aspiring writer dumps his boyfriend, burns bridges and moves to New York State to attend graduate school, only to realise that no one will ever read his stories. It’s a savage joke when he says, “I wanted from the MFA what most people want from most things, that is, total fulfilment of the self.”

The characters in this debut collection assume dubious ethical poses. Penniless and desperate at the start of summer break, the MFA student finds a job on Craigslist as part of a shady operation that seizes the possessions of squatters and then delivers them to unpaid-for landfill. “If this was illegal it didn’t strike me as particularly illegal,” he thinks. “I didn’t feel like we were breaking any law that mattered.” In another story, a gay man who has fled to Dubai after a breakup to “make money and become someone else” catches up for a drink with another expat who teaches at an international school. The teacher says he’s frequently given gifts by his students’ parents, and claims that he’s “concerned about the ethics of it all”. The narrator holds the word up to ponder it, like a strange artefact. “That’s what he said: the ethics.”

An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life (Allen & Unwin) joins a tradition of black satire of the world of modern labour, in which the industrial habitus has seeped into all facets of life. When the call-centre worker goes home, her domestic life eerily mimics her time at work. She sits at the desk or on her bed, looking “at the same websites, refresh[ing] the same pages”. She stays in the job “because she doesn’t know the type of person she is or wants to be”. She is the Eleanor Rigby of the Lonely Century.

Dalla Rosa’s stories, which have been published in Granta, McSweeneys and The Paris Review, open with lines that are like clickbait: “On Grindr I told people I was breaking into the business, but that I was also waiting for the right time”; “I took a connection from Beijing to Zhengzhou, and there, waiting at the arrivals gate, was the life coach”. Thereafter, the lives of these losers and loners are described in a style and with a level of detail that I would call “forensic”, and with what seems like emotional detachment. Even so, each sentence in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life hums with the stakes of someone’s inner life. The big joke is that it’s no more “exciting and vivid” than their insipid outer life. And rather than some fascinating internal revelation, what more commonly emerges in these stories is an unpleasant bodily revolt: vomit that sprays around a taxi; a pimple, “cystic and rising from deep beneath the surface”.

We are often encouraged to see reclusive or misanthropic behaviour as a form of social maladjustment, but we are all loners in a Paul Dalla Rosa story. As with much fiction that taps into tectonic shifts in the culture, these stories make sense at the instinctual level. Through mirth, melancholy or slack-jawed disgust emerges the piteous self you would rather not see.

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is a writer, researcher and the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’.

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