Reviewed: An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa, Allen & Unwin
Gloriously deadpan and effortlessly incisive, Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut short story collection An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is a pitch-dark look at the alienation of modern life. The characters in the ten stories are predominantly young artists, their hunger for creativity and meaning curtailed by economic precarity: they work at shadowy corporations and dive bars, as dishwashers, cam boys and retail assistants. Millennials floundering under the crush of late capitalism have become somewhat of a marketing hook, but Dalla Rosa’s stories avoid easy categorisation. Distinctive for their understated comic sensibility, he skewers the materialism and aimlessness of his narrators through their fumbling interactions with their hyper-curated surroundings. His story locations—which range from Dubai sky lounges and Hollywood mansions to Queensland strip malls—are impenetrable and absurd in equal measure.
‘Comme’ follows the slavishly dedicated manager of a high-end retail store in Melbourne, who spends his time steaming new stock, envying his younger co-workers, and ‘being very still, almost meditative’. Dalla Rosa describes the store as so pristinely spartan that it feels near-mystical, which starkly contrasts the fleshy, desperate humanity of its manager, whose efforts to mould himself into the space are beset with misfortune. Over the course of the story, he develops an oozing cyst on his face; his attempt to rock a $4,000 Comme shirt end in him looking like ‘Lisa Simpson in the episode where she dresses up as the state of Florida.’ Slapstick pitfalls also plague the digital artist at the centre of ‘Charlie in High Definition’, whose manicured Fort Greene apartment is slowly thrown into chaos by the unexplainable outbursts of her Maine Coon cat.
The prose here is precise, ever-surprising: its taut musicality evokes both Don DeLillo and Lucia Berlin, threaded with a hilarious droll edge. Take this rhythmic passage from ‘Contact,’ from which the collection takes its title:
On the tram her psychologist is wearing a large grey suit. Her psychologist sees her, he is looking at her, then he closes his eyes and freezes like she is a T-rex and if he does not move she will not see him. She thinks, my psychologist thinks I’m a T-rex. Later, at home, she thinks, I have an exciting and vivid inner life.
The book brims with these elegant punchlines, which speak to a deeper, melancholic struggle to find genuine intimacy in an increasingly disconnected world. Characters are frequently dehumanised by their workplaces: in ‘Contact,’ a call centre worker jumping off the rooftop of her austere office building merely results in a ‘Don’t Jump’ poster being ‘quietly taken down’. Meanwhile, in the moving ‘Short Stack’, an earnest diner worker named Sam struggles to find kinship amongst the harried staff, yet is unable to envision his life beyond the diner’s confines. He feels ‘happiest eating a stack of pancakes drenched in high-fructose corn syrup. He was happiest eating them at the Pancake Saloon with his friends who were not his friends but his co-workers.’
Though Dalla Rosa pokes fun at the delusions of his characters, he takes this yearning for love—and the futility of that yearning—seriously. In one of the collection’s highlights, ‘An MFA Story,’ an Australian MFA student (also named Paul) in upstate New York forges a friendship with his neighbour, a trans woman named Cyndi. When Paul’s financial stability frays, he begins working for a slum lord, jeopardising the fragile balance of his one sincere relationship. The tenderness of Dalla Rosa’s writing sneaks up on you, built up through small admissions of vulnerability, kindness, and hope; the disruption of that intimacy—by selfishness, by delusions of grandeur, by larger systems out of the characters’ control—feels like the loss of something rare and real.
The modern landscapes of An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life may be suffocating and full of random and surreal non-sequiturs. But Dalla Rosa’s unsparing observations reveal that these spaces have become less strange and more the stuff of day-to-day life. All we can do is laugh, scroll, and continue stumbling towards an ephemeral sense of connection.
Claire Cao is a freelance writer from Western Sydney. You can read her work in Kill Your Darlings, the Lifted Brow, SBS Life, the Big Issue and Cordite Poetry Review.