These stories are like soulless apartments. The ones with cheap fittings and use of space designed without humans in mind. The ones that are described in listings as “investments”. There are many such dwellings in these stories – in Dubai, New York, Melbourne, the Gold Coast. They are a symbol of Paul Dalla Rossa’s preoccupation with what you might call late-stage capitalism. Here it’s not so much a decay as a hardening, a smoothing, a removal of resistance as the minutiae of people’s lives becomes determined by the cold logic of markets and consumption, the replacement of organic flesh with synthetics and binary code. I think you could even make the case that they are set entirely in a simulation, like the avatars in the architectural renders Emma makes in Charlie In High Definition:
a Sim that was playing The Sims to earn money, but that money was only ever enough to keep playing, and, at certain times, upgrade homewares.
Each of Dalla Rossa’s characters are grappling in some way with this existential crisis. They are retail workers, call centre workers, aspiring poets, actors, writers, dancers, life coaches. Mostly they chase money, or fame, or things that would usually be seen as superficial or as a morality lesson. Dalla Rossa treats them and their desires seriously and on their own terms. All of them are under forty, and quite a number are in their late teens and early twenties (I’d be interested to see what he does with older characters). Nearly all of them are queer men, as if the combination of alienation and hedonism is uniquely placed to illuminate the condition of the modern world. Several of them, finding their aspirations slipping away, turn to cyber sex work for a livelihood, as if the profession is the singularity of turning humans into “prosumers”. They are hard stories, concrete, metal and glass as the city towers that provide the settings. Lots happens but they feel weightless. Even the heat and earth of Majorca, Tel Aviv, the Arabian deserts, feels chilly. The people with real power – landlords, CEOs, a team of consultants who invade a call centre to restructure it – are all shadowy figures pulling the strings from the wings.
But pay attention and the façade slips. To give one example, the first story, The Hard Thing, centring on a young man living in Dubai, a city with “islands under their own construction, cranes in the sky”, a nod perhaps to Solange’s own exquisite metaphor for loneliness and isolation. “I had come to make money and become someone else,” he tells us, and to his therapist, “I just didn’t want to have friends at all.” But despite this professed desire to live life as frictionlessly as possible there’s something else going on. He cheated on his ex-boyfriend, engages in risky sex:
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.
Such moments of heat are few and far between in these stories, but when they happen they are like being touched by a cattle prod. Contact, which follows a woman working in a call centre, offers the collection’s titular phrase, when the women sees her psychologist on a tram:
Her psychologist sees her, he is looking at her, then he closes his eyes like she is a T-rex and if he doesn’t move she will not see him. She thinks, My psychologist thinks I am a T-rex. Later, at home, she thinks, I have an exciting and vivid inner life.
It’s an electrifying image, and it’s impossible to say whether Dalla Rossa is inviting ridicule or pity or something else, so cool and detached is his prose (as he has pointed out on Twitter, the collection’s acronym is AEVIL. Happy coincidence, or wink to the audience?). I found such moments weirdly ecstatic, triumphant even, such as Sam, the nineteen-year-old dropout working in a pancake parlour taking flights of fancy on Grand Theft Auto in Short Stack, or Charlie, the cat who terrorises and imprisons Emma’s Brooklyn flatmate in Charlie In High Definition, even the horrendous filler job that the aspiring go-go dancer gets done in The Fame. It makes them kind of playful, despite the soul-crushing settings. They are moments when the simulation glitches.
Gay rating: 5/5 for queer characters, sex and themes.