Paul Dalla Rosa’s Stories Find Transcendence in the Tedium of Modern Life

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Paul Dalla Rosa
Paul Dalla RosaPhotography Alan Weedon

The writer’s debut book, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, is a darkly humorous exploration of class, sex, and shattered dreams

The characters in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, the debut short story collection from Australian author Paul Dalla Rosa, are often trapped in dead-end jobs. In Short Stack, the 19-year-old Sam washes dishes at the Pancake Saloon, for a paycheck that doesn’t quite cover his mounting debt and parasocial relationship with a cam boy. In Comme, the narrator works a managerial job at a Comme des Garçons store in Melbourne, narrowly missing his big break with Rei Kawakubo. In An MFA Story, an aspiring author finds himself moving furniture for a slumlord to get by, and – through a series of interactions with his neighbour and fellow students – he comes to realise that no one’s ever going to care about his writing.

Given this recurring theme, the title can be read as a “scathing” critique of the characters and the society that surrounds them, Dalla Rosa tells AnOther, or it “can be read in a really sincere way”, hinting at moments of transcendence amid the tedium. And there are moments like this (though they usually don’t fit into typical plot arcs), such as when Sam gets good enough at Grand Theft Auto to steal a jet and soar about the virtual city: “Sam was in the air. Then the city was below him, all its freeways and fast-food restaurants and shitty apartment towers like Sam’s shitty apartment tower, and a calm came over him.”

Of course, these moments of freedom are almost always short-lived, and the characters come crashing back down to Earth as reality intrudes on their exciting and vivid inner lives. Sam flies higher and higher until he hits a digital limit: “The game’s draw distance glitched, and each direction, above and below, collapsed into sky.” Similarly, the narrator of The Fame, a self-professed “triple threat” searching for celebrity on the Gold Coast, gets a harsh and X-rated reality check after indulging in his fantasies for too long.

From this description, it may seem like An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is unrelentingly dark and nihilistic. Maybe it is, but it’s also very funny, tapping into a long tragicomic tradition that draws humour out of the hopelessness of its characters’ lives. In fact, Dalla Rosa considered opening with a Gogol quote that sums up this dynamic: “The longer and more carefully we look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.”

Below, we talk to the author about walking the line between comedy and cruelty, taking inspiration from a Gogol quote he found on Pornhub, and whether he really believes that his characters lead exciting and vivid inner lives.

Thom Waite: How are you doing? What do your days look like, since the book launch?

Paul Dalla Rosa: I have a day job, and I’ve just left it, which is nice. I’ve got like one shift left. But it’s been pretty normal … I’m interested in how long I can just write without going crazy or something like that.

TW: What was the process of writing your first collection like? I was curious whether you worked on the stories separately, over a long period of time, because there’s a real sense of unity between them.

PDR: I was working on the book for seven years, but it was pretty apparent, pretty early, that I wanted it to be a collection. [I] would do one story, and then [I] would think, how can that relate to something else? Or how can I look at the same problem, but from a refracted point of view? I think that’s what gave it that kind of cohesive quality. It wasn’t like every story I wrote over seven years is in the book. It was pretty considered and mindful.

In the editing process I was pretty hard on myself not to go back and edit the stories that had already been published. I didn’t want to go back and change it too much, because I wanted it to feel like a progression. I think when you go and revisit a story and sort of edit it, you can kind of make it shit [laughs]. The thing that maybe was interesting at that point in time, maybe you’re, like, disconnected from it.

“So many of the characters are obsessed with dreams or aspirations in a way that's very vivid and real to them, and probably feels more real than their actual lives” – Paul Dalla Rosa

TW: The title, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, comes from the story Contact. Why did that phrase resonate in particular?

PDR: I like it because it’s sort of ironic and open and almost like a Barbara Kruger print or something like that, where it will be like, some kind of sentence that’s sort of jarring and doesn’t tell you everything … it’s ambivalent. Depending on how you read [the book’s title], it can be pretty scathing toward the characters, or it can be scathing to the society around them. Or it can just be funny, or can be read in a really sincere way. I’ve noticed that every review has to say whether or not the characters have exciting and vivid inner lives, which is really funny. 

TW: Naturally, I have to ask you now: do you think that the characters have exciting and vivid inner lives?

PDR: I think sometimes they have the potential. So many of the characters are obsessed with dreams or aspirations in a way that's very vivid and real to them, and probably feels more real than their actual lives. So on that level, you could say that they do have vivid inner lives. But you could also say that … for example, in that Contact story, she’s mainly referring to pop culture, like [the title quote] comes directly after she makes a Jurassic Park reference. I think you could argue two ways: it could say that someone’s been sort of like, colonised by mass culture, or it could just be that mass culture is now how we think.

TW: There’s a big focus on work throughout the book, and it’s placed in contrast with the characters’ inner lives in quite unhealthy ways.

PDR: On one level, I think I just really hate working, which is pretty normal. But also I think that our lives are, more and more, completely structured around work. We’ve all been told this idea [that] everyone’s a freelancer, or everyone’s flexible, or you can do anything, but in reality it’s sort of a trap. It means that you don’t have any kind of security, so then you just have to keep working, or keep hustling, or keep trying to find something. And that tends to hollow out everything else you do. And I’ve just worked a lot of shitty jobs. I guess I can talk from experience.

“It’d be very bizarre to read a novel set now and nobody ever gets a text message or an email” – Paul Dalla Rosa

TW: Technology is another recurring theme, how that atomises or alienates people, and it’s really well-integrated into the stories. Was that a conscious choice?

PDR: Yeah, definitely. There’s this difficult thing with literature now, which is you actually can’t represent the present without those things, because it would just be inauthentic. It’d be very bizarre to read a novel set now and nobody ever gets a text message or an email. In the history of the novel, it’s always tied to new forms of communication or technology. 

I’ve read a lot of instances where people do it really poorly. When I was writing, I was very interested in looking at people who do it in an exciting way. So like, Tao Lin or Megan Boyle, or even Honor Levy. People like that tend to do it in quite a smart way, or like an unmediated way, but to actually get that unmediated effect you have to do a lot of mediation.

TW: You mention pop culture or contemporary brands in that same kind of glancing way, like Tumblr or Comme des Garçons – there are all these little hints, even if you don’t mention them by name.

PDR: I think it’s because all of those references date really quickly. Especially now, because we seem to be accelerating. Culture seems to be accelerating, especially during Covid, and after Covid. But of course, it was happening before then. Everyone was on their phone and online so much. There would be a new scandal every week, but at the same time, something that people were outraged [about] on Twitter five days ago, no one remembers five days afterwards because there’s already been like four things after that. And then only certain things stay in this sort of cultural memory. 

Sometimes that was a worry when I was writing the book. Particularly if I was writing a story five years ago, and it had to do with something [relevant to that time], now you can be worried … like, will anyone appreciate it? Will anyone care? But that is the wrong way of looking at it. Because to understand these things, or to really think about them, takes more time. I think you have to take time to understand them, and I think art takes time. It’s sort of stupid to try to keep up with whatever is happening online.

“To understand things, or to really think about them, takes more time. I think you have to take time to understand them, and I think art takes time. It’s sort of stupid to try to keep up with whatever is happening online” – Paul Dalla Rosa

TW: These are sad stories, but there’s a dark humour to them. How do you avoid stepping over into a kind of cruelty?

PDR: I’ve always really liked tragicomic writing. That might be Dostoevsky, or Gogol, or someone like that, or it could be someone more recent. I do think that when you’re paying a lot of attention to someone, things that are cruel or harsh will come out. But also there is a humour there that’s not necessarily always at their expense. I actually just think life is quite ridiculous and absurd.

I think there’s a Gogol quote. Bizarrely, once, I saw a Pornhub video, which was insane … it opened with this Gogol epigraph that was like: ‘The longer you look at a funny story, the sadder it becomes.’ I think that’s pretty true. It’s almost funny or tragic that it was in that location. But again, life is pretty ridiculous. I considered using [the quote] as the epigraph but I thought it would be too on the nose.

TW: In An MFA Story, the narrator has this anxiety about being read or not being read. Is that an anxiety you share?

PDR: I don’t know if I’ve had the anxiety that I wouldn’t be read. I’ve approached it, like, I’m writing short stories, I’m writing in a form that isn’t the predominant cultural form anymore. That’s TV and film. Just TV now, probably. So I always approached [writing] from this angle, which is, I’m doing my thing; if people like it, great, if they don’t, whatever.

I’ve taught creative writing, I’ve been in creative writing programmes, and I think there can sometimes be a narcissism in them, just in how important or how much effect they believe their work will have. I don’t think that means it’s not important, or that it can’t have an effect. But, say for example in An MFA Story, a lot of the people in the town really don’t give a shit what anyone’s writing because they’re dealing with real problems in their lives, rather than whether or not someone gets published in X journal or Y journal. It’s completely meaningless to them.

An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life by Paul Dalla Rosa is out now.