BOOK REVIEW: An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life by Paul Dalla Rosa

By Nick Xuereb

The short stories in Paul Dalla Rosa’s An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life are about people who are lonely, vain and desperate. For the most part, they are motivated by jealousy, bitterness and self-interest. They work lousy jobs and have even lousier relationships. They want more from their lives, but are confused as to how to get it. Their efforts toward this end fall hopelessly short.

On the surface, Dalla Rosa’s characters seem to make up a diverse cast—yet whether they work in high-end fashion or cheap hospitality, star in Hollywood movies or perform sex work online—their small and isolated lives tend to resemble each other. The narrator of ‘Comme’ succinctly diagnoses their mutual dilemma when he says: ‘I often felt I had made poor choices, that I had failed to capitalise in some generalised yet hyper-specific way.’ This is more-or-less true for most of Dalla Rosa’s characters: their failures are ‘hyper-specific’, arising out of the niche cultural spaces they occupy, yet they all confront the same essential question: how to live a meaningful life under capitalism?

While intelligent answers to this question might be numerous, the characters in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life are at sea when it comes to navigating the plethora of superficial choices that consumer society offers. 

Am I making the book sound utterly grim? It’s not. Dalla Rosa’s stories are funny, clever and delightfully entertaining. His prose is restrained yet precise—the book’s descriptive passages guide the reader from the mundane to the surreal, usually landing upon a single surprising detail that expresses the narrators’ state of mind while simultaneously illuminating the strangeness of the world they inhabit. The following passage from ‘The Fame’ is representative of this:

I took a room in a small house, really a bungalow … my room could only fit one single-size mattress on the floor. The yard was all tall grass and weeds, and the front porch had rotted; in the corner was a hole I’d once seen a snake slide into. It lifted its brown head at me, just for a moment, then continued on. 

Even the wildlife in Dalla Rosa’s stories seem afflicted by an advanced case of ennui. Much of the collection’s humour comes from the way Dalla Rosa evokes a world that seems bored by its own absurdity. 

Yet, while the people who populate these stories might seem benumbed and bewildered, Dalla Rosa himself is certainly not. There is a tenderness in his treatment of the material. The collection’s underlying theme is its characters failure to connect with others, and Dalla Rosa approaches it armed with a biting sense of humour, which doubles as a form of empathy.

When Sam, the protagonist of ‘Short Stack’, buys his favourite cam boy a SpongeBob Squarepants Pineapple House aquarium ornament, the reader feels both pity for Sam’s desperation and amused by the extravagance of the gesture. Sam cannot really afford such things, but whenever he sends ShyGuy18 money ‘his browser [makes] a sound of coins falling and Sam [feels] happy.’

Like ‘Short Stack’, many of the stories in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life suggest that the digital interfaces through which we attempt to connect with other people are woefully inadequate tools for filling the negative space between self and other. At the same time, these tools are the best the modern world has to offer. While it seems impossible that Dalla Rosa’s characters will find what they’re looking for on the internet, it is just as unlikely they will make a meaningful connection through real-life conversation. 

Dalla Rosa’s characters exist in a world where the most powerful desires are inexpressible; not because they are strictly unknown but because their intimate nature makes them shameful. Alice, the up-and-coming Hollywood actress from ‘In Bright Light’, takes her parents to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. ‘One day you’ll have one,’ her father says of the terrazzo stars that decorate the sidewalk. Hearing this, Alice feels ‘something close to pain … because though it was tacky he had said exactly what it was she wanted.’ 

Knowing what you want is one thing; asking for it is another. Finishing An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, I knew exactly what I wanted: more stories by Paul Dalla Rosa. Dalla Rosa flies you from Dubai to Melbourne, Brooklyn to Majorca, the Gold Coast to Hollywood. And when you disembark, you feel as though he has shown you the world at its most beautifully bleak: the sad sex, the dead ends, the bitter disappointments, the losers and the lost.

An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life was published by Allen & Unwin and has an RRP of $29.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Nick Xuereb is a writer from Melbourne. He is completing the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.

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