The stories collected in Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, are similar enough that you sense a theme, different enough that each comes as a relief. They’re about young modern lives: precarious and disappointing houses, boyfriends, jobs; trying to make beautiful art, or a beautiful self, to do something or be someone that matters (at least to someone). And the lust and vanity and vulnerability of that.
Many of these ten pieces have appeared elsewhere in Australia and overseas, and marked the Melburnian as a writer to watch. In 2018, Dalla Rosa described his idea of a great short story: “It appears, everything else fades away, then it’s gone … An act of transubstantiation, matter simultaneously changed and unchanged.” To weigh someone’s work against their own criteria for success might be a friendly way to load the die – but it does describe what these stories achieve.
Characters have no massive epiphanies. In Brooklyn, Melbourne, the Gold Coast, Dubai, innocuous miscalculations make their lives variously more stressful: they slide into debt; get saddled with bad housemates; botch hook-ups, professional opportunities and dermal fillers. You leave them at (or just over) the brink – of an awkward moment, anaesthetised dismay, or something darker – but not fundamentally different. Still you feel yourself, as a reader, subtly rearranged. Not least because you can breathe again after 20 minutes of wincing: Dalla Rosa is both curious and unflinching about the weirder things our bodies do and that we do to our bodies, a tone set early on in a macabre incident with a boil. But also because there’s something absorbing about the bleak acuity with which he renders a bad moment. He knows when to let someone go quiet, or to set an ache of despair against a slash of colour or beauty (“phosphenes. Sparks. A burning filament”).
He is very funny, with a lightness of touch that both eases the bleakness and makes it worse – skewering his characters with a deadpan economy that belies his keen interest in them. One couple, from the window in the apartment they can’t afford, can “see the tops of oaks, branches beginning to bud with leaves, and, across the street, a woman rummaging through trash.” He sees the pretensions of these people – oh, let us live gorgeously, in debt, desperately blindfolded to the suffering of others, the inadequacy of our personal trysts – and the total absurdity of the lengths they go to, to preserve delusions of who they might be. But he doesn’t hate them. He cares about them, even. Good for you, you find yourself thinking to all these characters burning their lives to the ground, these aspiring life coaches, influencers, Pancake Saloon waiters, stars.
Dalla Rosa’s publisher compares him to other observers of the “ugly, beautiful” parts of life, Lucia Berlin, Ottessa Moshfegh – and he’s been mentored by Abigail Ulman, whose Hot Little Hands isn’t far from that family tree. He’s previously referenced Lydia Davis and Lorrie Moore: restless, clever writers, also ruthlessly interested in the way we want things, and get annoyed at the people who don’t give them to us.
These characters sit at the edge of jealousy, loneliness, fear, panic, numbed out by “greasy” phone screens and chat sites and eBay, all horribly exposed by the threadbare stuff of their dreams, their longing to be someone slightly other.
I said ‘That’s great’ and he said, ‘It is great’ and I said, ‘Great.’
‘I mean, it’s okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe the novel isn’t very good.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s great.’
We walked like this, me repeating ‘Great,’ all the way home.
“I’ve felt all that,” Dalla Rosa said in 2019, “the feeling of being stagnant, things not going how you planned them too, the feeling of time moving, the realisation you don’t get it back.” These stories, he told novelist Marlowe Granados earlier this year, come from “obsessively trying to figure out the problem of being young”. He is fascinated by shock value, takes a knowing glee in it, but doesn’t rely on it for momentum, or fall back on sarcasm or nihilism – this writing is acid, not sour.
One character moves to LA. She takes her family to the Walk of Fame, and her father tells her one day she’ll have her own star. “Alice said nothing but felt something keenly, something close to pain, because though it was tacky he had said exactly what it was she wanted.”
The jokes are deftly executed; the dialogue is cringingly funny. But underneath, these well-choreographed car crashes are all pulled toward the same, tender magnetic pole.
An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life by Paul Dalla Rosa is out 31 May in Australia ($29.99, Allen & Unwin)