In Paul Dalla Rosa’s short story “Comme”, a beautiful man in his mid-30s agonises over his value depreciating – to his boyfriend, other gay men, and his place of employment, an imposing, high-end fashion store. In one moment, he recalls instructing new employees that “the store was meant to be like a static image, a photograph in a magazine, dynamic only through shifts of light, the bold cuts of hemlines, a shirt’s silhouette”.
This mandate could also be applied to the work of Dalla Rosa. He composes scenes with precision and elegance but something rough and brittle emerges from the sheen: hysterical dry humour, cutting observations about dissatisfaction and desire. These qualities have led to accolades most fiction writers would envy: “Comme” was originally published in Granta, and nominated for The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, the richest short story prize in the world. He has had a byline in The Paris Review. His debut collection An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life – out in late May – attracted multiple bidders at publishing houses in both Australia and Britain.
Dalla Rosa is fond of foreign locales. Some locations from his book: a cockroach-infested apartment in Dubai, a monastery in central China, a Gold Coast tiki bar, crummy student accommodation in upstate New York, a suburban pancake restaurant, Tel Aviv, Los Feliz, Brooklyn, Majorca. His solipsistic characters drift through these flattened, globalised landscapes, aimless, aroused, longing for attention. Across these itinerant stories, alienation remains the only constant.
In another rather indistinguishable cosmopolitan site – inner-city Melbourne – I meet the 30-year-old writer. We’re at Monty’s, a bar in Fitzroy North, sipping gin martinis in the barren beer garden, sitting on janky timber chairs on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s a few weeks before the publication of his collection, which he has been writing and editing for seven years. He’s also a month away from finishing his PhD – a thesis on contemporary autofiction, where he is considering how an obsession with depicting real life links back to the novel’s earliest development. Autofiction then, is not simply a recent publishing trend or, for its denigrators, a symptom of unfettered contemporary narcissism, but inextricable from the origins of literary fiction.
I’m sure that some critics will read Dalla Rosa’s afflicted creatures suffering under capitalism and group him under that amorphous, ugly title: “millennial fiction”. This is not to say that his stories aren’t informed by specific contemporary ills. His book punctures aspirational culture and our warped relation to labour. An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is keenly attuned to the deadening effect precarious “flexible” work has on sex, ambitions and art. He rightly perceives that in an age of rampant greed and futility, exploitation becomes a presiding texture of life, no matter where you sit on the food chain.
“How different really is working in a high-end retail fashion store from working at a fast-food restaurant, to working at a university, to working as an actress?” Dalla Rosa says, speaking to the often hapless people that populate his book. “I think everyone’s work is becoming more and more like the work of an artist or the work of an actor, where they don’t have any kind of safety net or any accrued capital. So they just have to take job after job that will apparently lead to something better, but when does that happen?”
It doesn’t, and so Dalla Rosa’s characters feel around in the dark, only able to grasp material goods for salvation: presents for a beloved camboy, an obscenely expensive PVC vest, new age treatments recommended by the algorithm. Unsurprisingly, these objects don’t alleviate pain or loneliness. At best they produce distraction, a temporary pang of pleasure.
The impulse to funnel feelings of hopelessness into unnecessary consumption is something he is working on. “Like the other day, I just needed this Miu Miu shirt … I’ll be at home and I can’t even have a conversation, because I’m bidding on Grailed. And then, of course, you buy it and the thing arrives and you see it and you just put it on a hanger. And it’s just shit,” he says, laughing. “But you know, there’s an idea that you can write yourself out of it and I’m trying to. I wish I was as free as I would like the book to make me. It’s gotten me closer, but I’m not fully free of it yet.”
Baring the tedium and indignity of work under corporatism – and the unconventional appetites that spring forth to compensate for lack of joy or direction – has a long lineage. Don DeLillo and Jean Rhys, as Dalla Rosa mentions, plumb this particular misery in their writing. Dalla Rosa’s stories share a similar driving force to the work of Mary Gaitskill. Both push to the surface hidden aspects of human behaviour through characters who experience various forms of debasement. Both authors might be accused of being harsh or cold but they locate something slightly hopeful, even a little sweet, in their characters’ desperate quests for connection and how they hold out for something more among deprivation and dreariness.
In some ways, Paul Dalla Rosa’s career has involved aligning with those working in the margins, which has inadvertently seen him creep into the centre. In 2017, Dalla Rosa was one of the inaugural participants in the Mors Tua Vita Mea writers’ workshop in Sezze Romano, Italy, conducted by essayist Chelsea Hodson and the founder of the literary magazine New York Tyrant and independent press Tyrant Books, Giancarlo DiTrapano, who died last year, aged 47.
DiTrapano was a rare visionary who built a press from scratch around his own particular tastes, rather than the whims and trends of commercial publishing. The prose tended towards the confessional, desperate and lacerating. The writers were often young and not yet established.
For years, the online magazine was my favourite place to read new literature. I had a strangely emotional experience reading Gary Lutz’s “Slops”, a tender story about a teacher in his “septic thirties” with colitis, paranoid about his soiled underwear. The magazine was the first place to publish Honor Levy, an ingenue writing about boys and the internet with a singular, erratic style. Tyrant was where I initially encountered Dalla Rosa’s work. In 2018, they published his story “The Hard Thing” about an expat in Dubai, there to make money in a boring corporate job, but also to start over, purify himself – and get over his ex-boyfriend. He starves himself and vows celibacy, but he ends up getting drunk and attempting to lick a sailor’s foot. Slicing through the air of solitude are calls and emails from his father, repeating vague, slightly ominous psychic readings.
Dalla Rosa recalls DiTrapano cornering him in a stairwell during the workshop years ago, wanting to publish the story, wanting to publish his prospective book. “The Hard Thing” opens An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life. “I like it being the first story in the book, because it’s the most abrasive,” Dalla Rosa says. “If someone doesn’t like the first story, they’re probably not the person to continue with the book.”
Hodson remembers Dalla Rosa reading at an event they had organised with everyone in the workshop. His deadpan delivery made his humour apparent, something that hadn’t completely registered when she was editing his work. “Paul is a great example of a writer that embodies the voice of his stories – his writing is totally singular, and it feels as if no one else could have written it. Meeting him helped me fully comprehend his power as a writer, but I think his book makes this apparent whether you’ve met him or not,” she tells me over email. “His writing feels polished, but not lifeless – his stories have a pulse.”
Tyrant led to Granta, which led to his agent, which led to his book deal, which led to The Paris Review. “Giancarlo publishing that story really started all of that,” he says. DiTrapano and his apartment in Rome, where Dalla Rosa stayed after the workshop, was also the impetus for a 60,000-page draft of an autofictional novel with a narrator called “Paul Dalla Rosa”. “I’m never publishing it,” he says.
Dalla Rosa grew up in North Eltham, a twin born to two second-generation Italians. In an old interview, he talks about how the place – once lush bushland painted by Australian Impressionists in the 19th century – had morphed into another example of suburban ugliness: gas stations, highways, footy fields littered with empty bottles. He wondered if the disjunction he appreciated in fiction might link to the disjunction of the suburb.
As a teenager, he displayed some absurd precociousness – he read The Divine Comedy at 12 – but his ambitions skewed towards the stage. He studied acting at NIDA’s Young Actors Studio and at The Australian Ballet School. Performance and the perils of being seen are recurrent motifs in his book.
After high school, Dalla Rosa found himself saddled with inexplicable chronic pain. What followed were years of specialists, injections, myotherapy and international surgeons. Throughout this period, Dalla Rosa worked several menial, low-level jobs – the kind found in many of his stories. He waited tables, manned reception, and toiled at call centres, the latter of which still supports his writing.
The best job he had was serving as the intermediary between musicians and journalists – connecting their calls, letting writers know their time was up. “My life was really weird then … I would go to work. And I would take a train home, like an hour into the suburbs. And then I would have to do all these weird health treatments – like putting a towel soaked in boiling water over my face, I have these two little eye holes, and I’m like, watching Sex and the City or whatever.”
About 21, he finally discovered what was wrong: his jawbone was continuing to grow, twice as fast on one side, and had twisted the first vertebra of his spine. Over three years he had various jaw surgeries. “I have eight or nine platinum sort of bolts in my face. It was a lot,” he says. “But all of my pain went away.” By his mid-20s, it was like “starting over and having a life again”.
I ask if this experience chipped away at those aspirational fantasies you hold onto as a teenager. Maybe, he says, but it ends up happening to everyone. In Dalla Rosa’s infrequent newsletter “Bad Artist Statements” – where he conducts long, digressive interviews with writers and artists – he says: “My debut really was me, over the course of years, obsessively trying to figure out the problem of being young and having all of these dreams and aspirations and then realising that a lot of the time those didn’t serve me and almost always led to me being exploited in some way or another.”
Dalla Rosa’s stories don’t have neat resolutions but nor is there endless despair: tiny moments of revelation carry promise. “I don’t think the book is that bleak because I think there is a sort of idea that if you come to a sense of self-knowledge that can be empowering, it can allow you to move into life in a different way,” he says. “You might still be exploited, but now you might have a better understanding of your exploitation.”
It would be wrong to classify Dalla Rosa’s book as bleak. There is so much romance, grace and humour in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, found often in his careful, prickly sentences. He says it offsets the torment. “You can be showing something awful or tense or hair-raising, but there is joy in the language, or confined within the sentences. It makes the stories a lot more interesting because it’s awful to be alive, but it’s also beautiful. You have to match that.” He laughs. “But that’s such a hokey thing to say.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "A vivid inner life".
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