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VPLA 2023
An Exciting And Vivid Inner Life

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Title: An Exciting And Vivid Inner Life

Author: Paul Dalla Rosa

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Whether working in food service or in high-end retail, lit by a laptop in a sex chat or by the camera of an acclaimed film director, sharing a dangerous apartment in the city, a rooming house in China or a vacation rental in Mallorca, the protagonists of the ten stories comprising Paul Dalla Rosa’s debut collection, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, navigate the spaces between aspiration and delusion, ambition and aimlessness, the curated profile and the unreliable body.

By turns unsparing and tender, Dalla Rosa explores our lives in late-stage capitalism, where globalisation and its false promises of connectivity and equity leave us all further alienated and disenfranchised. His stories are small masterpieces of regret, futility and tenderness, dripping with acuity, irony and wit.

Like his acclaimed contemporary Ottessa Moshfegh and the legendary Lucia Berlin, Dalla Rosa is a masterful observer and unflinching eviscerator of our ugly, beautiful attempts at finding meaning in an ugly, beautiful world.

 


 

Judges’ report

Sharp and vital, witty and cruel, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life slices into our deepest and most destructive desires. Throughout this punch-in-the-guts debut short-story collection, Paul Dalla Rosa offers unflinching, yet utterly human, character studies: dark encounters pulled from the gaping maw of late-stage capitalism. From Dubai to China, Melbourne to New York, this masterful work awakens the senses, reminding us of what it means to be alive in this era of self-aware uncertainty.

 


 

Extract

The Hard Thing

I was living in Dubai and I didn’t have a phone, a laptop either. I believed such things could betray me, or at least enable me to better betray myself. My father would call me on Skype but the calls would ring out. He sent emails I read later at work. They were generally the same. ‘Answer my calls,’ he’d write, and then he’d ask about my ex-boyfriend. He would list my ex’s good qualities: that he remembered people’s birthdays, that he was okay with my limited job prospects, that he routinely exercised. ‘Most men are not like this,’ he would say.

My father would also tell me about my future. He texted my birthdate and his credit card details to a psychic hotline that did readings on late-night television.

Today, my father wrote, ‘It isn’t great.’ The stars indicated I was under the influence of an inverted Mars, which meant I could act like a body possessed. Unless I reconciled with certain energies, I would only ever know too late when I was truly loved.

‘I think this is it,’ my father wrote. ‘I really do.’

I didn’t find this as impressive as he did. To me, it read like an aphorism—it described most people.

The city was not what I’d anticipated. The air was either thick with sand or heavy with smog. When I first arrived I’d stayed in a serviced apartment I had rented due to misleading photos online. There were two small rooms and no windows. I could never tell if the sun had set. This was during Ramadan, so no one could serve drinks until it had. Every night I’d call the front desk and ask them: is it time, is it time?

I moved, but it didn’t do much good. My new apartment, on the thirtieth floor of a complex that was built next to a series of man-made lakes, crawled with cockroaches. It had a kitchen, a communal bathroom, and a shared balcony the size of a shower stall. My room fit a single-size mattress and little else. Six people lived in the apartment. It’s difficult to understand how.

I had come to make money and become someone else. I did make money; I paid no income tax, but my rent was expensive, outrageous, so I had little after spending on essentials. The company I worked for dealt in mineral rights. I used the company Amex card to book foreign nationals hotel rooms and to stock office supplies. I sent out priority mail and poorly proofread correspondence. Often all I would do for a day was stick little red stickers on contracts next to where clients had to sign. The documents were lengthy, in both Arabic and English, sometimes French, Mandarin. Like most things, I didn’t need to understand them—I just had to avoid asking questions, had to get into a rhythm. I’d sit there between glass partitions, drinking ice water, my eyes out of focus, my headache slowly dulling, and in this way feel at peace.

I was purifying myself, I thought, and so I rarely ate. When I wasn’t working I went to the building’s exercise centre and ran on a treadmill that wobbled and shuddered. I did squats on my balcony, and smoked cigarettes, looking out over Sheikh Zayed Road. I felt the heat. Most nights I descended the thirty flights and crossed the road to drink vodka and fruit juice in a hotel bar. Sometimes I would do small inexplicable things like smash a glass on the floor or take a late bus out to the dunes and scream. But I remained celibate. I was living where laws were meant to be moral. Sodomy was illegal, and so I figured my relationships could only be platonic. That was my idea: to exist as an ideal.

After seven months I met a friend for drinks. He was the only person I knew in the city from my life outside of it. He was the kind of friend you occasionally email but often lie to. I told him I had been here for less time than I had. Our drinks were arranged quickly. Maybe it was a date. I wanted to see if I could be a new person.

My friend was tanned and wore white linen. He looked ridiculous. He taught schoolchildren at an international school where he said the kids all spoke like movie stars. He told me that his students’ parents often gave him gifts, either to influence grades or use local etiquette. He didn’t know what to do with them. He was concerned about the ethics of it all. That’s what he said: the ethics. He took a box out of his backpack and gave it to me.

‘Take it,’ he said. ‘I’ve already been given five.’

It was a smartphone. I put it on the table. I stared at it while he continued talking. I didn’t want to take it, but I didn’t want to give it back either.

He told me that a twelve-year-old had come to class that week missing three fingers. I gasped. I was already drunk.

‘Did he steal?’

‘No, it was his birthday party the weekend before. His parents gave him a quad bike.’

My friend and I were different in many ways. He actually knew Arabs.

I said, ‘That sucks.’

‘They were going to reattach his fingers,’ he said. ‘But they couldn’t because they were lost in the sand. The kids all thought it was kind of cool, though. But it’s awful. You don’t give a child something like that.’

My friend kept speaking and I was glad. The last thing I wanted was to talk about myself. I placed one hand on the smartphone’s box, still on the table, then the other.

As he spoke I felt further and further away. I was reminded of when I saw a therapist. I saw her for two sessions. She had me write my problems on cue cards. We were to start on something easy. For a week she had me think about why I found it difficult to maintain personal relationships. I arrived at the next session and told her that I’d had a breakthrough—I just didn’t want to have friends at all. The therapist pursed her lips and said, ‘You’re making this difficult.’

I realised neither of us was talking. My friend looked at me expectantly. I wasn’t sure if he’d asked a question.

‘I’d better go soon,’ he said. ‘Stephen is cooking tacos. You can come if you want. Give your partner a call and have him come round too.’

‘Go,’ I said. ‘I’m going to head home. We have our own tacos. I’ll be out after I use the bathroom.’

I didn’t go anywhere.

Close to ten, I watched a group of Emiratis come in, wearing white robes and headscarves. The bartender looked at them and shook his head. They shuffled out and came back half an hour later in Levi’s. They drank martinis. I did too.

At close, I stumbled to a taxi stand. When we pulled up at my apartment building I felt wretched and alone. I got out of the car and the driver called out to me, ‘Sir, please take your shoes.’ I picked them up off the back seat and nodded demurely.

All in all, I thought the night went well.

In my room I plugged the new smartphone in and watched a red bar silently blink across the screen.

In the morning I crawled across my bedroom floor. I’d woken up there, tried to move towards my bed then let my head rest. I listened to hear if I could sense my flatmates. All was quiet. I stretched, then rolled over and saw a cockroach. We regarded each other for a moment, then it moved on.

I got up and walked to the balcony. I did what most people do: I took a photo of what I saw and put it online.

 


 

About the author

Photo: Alan Weedon

Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. His stories have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Meanjin and New York Tyrant. In 2019, his story ‘Comme’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award. He is currently undertaking his PhD at RMIT University, studying ‘the real’ within contemporary fiction. An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is his debut collection.

 

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