Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of articles with international concerns. Today’s article, “Sublime Neutrality,” by Ursula Robinson-Shaw, was originally published by the SRB on July 10, 2023.
I read somewhere that good literature is indifferent to evil. It might have been that good writers are indifferent to evil. I retained none of the context, only the pull quote, and why wouldn’t I? What a seductive proposition—giving readers permission to banish the author, or at least the specter of their moral character; giving writers permission to write without thinking, first, always, what does this say about me?
Literary evil is thin on the ground these days; all those charming pedophiles, sadists, murderers, crowded out by neurotics, malingerers, failed imposters. Look at Dennis Cooper: even snuff is “tender.” You have to meet your reader in the middle. Too much specificity and you alienate your audience, who go from book to book looking for themselves. A popular template from the middlebrow almanac: name a place, throw in trees, quality of light, some vague cultural analysis, no real particulars. In the first person, the speaker invites you to where they are, which is very generous of them. They let you in, and there’s plenty of room in their blousy descriptions for you to bring yourself and everything you already knew. Particularity can be dangerous, even violent, so writers learn to be careful what they ask their readers to relate to. But if the writer knows what they’re doing, relatability doesn’t come into it. The reader has forgotten they exist as a being apart.
Before the publication of his first collection of short fiction, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa enjoyed a remarkably slick career for a local short story writer. Who is his agent??? I would seethe, watching his bylines appear in Granta, The Paris Review, and, most recently, Forever, a magazine so cool I paid $100AUD for it to get lost in the mail. I was surprised he even had an AustLit entry, despite failing to appear in the bloated back-catalogues of print periodicals or obscurely-monied short story competitions, not one weird poem on a glorified blog run by regional cat people. Dalla Rosa has been careful not to embarrass himself.
The stories in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life are set in millennial Carver-country, an abstract zone of aestheticized precarity and terminally online mass culture, where there is no space but private space and hell is ourselves. Reviews of the collection have described its “poise,” “precision” and “elegance.” The stories are written with a calculated reserve, a wry and reflexive humor; they are contemporary without unduly dating themselves, breaking no sweat under anxiety of influence, neither unfashionably literary nor fashionably unliterary, with the author citing Ottessa Moshfegh, Amie Barrodale, Gary Indiana, Lucia Berlin, Eve Babitz, Dean Kissick, Jordan Castro, Honor Levy, Megan Boyle, Chelsea Hodson, and Tao Lin as influences, a North American canon of cool edge. Any dorky, undergraduate-writing-class interest in “place” has been excised. Settings are always threatening to turn into somewhere else (the Gold Coast “felt kind of like California, with theme parks, palm trees and water, but it wasn’t California”). Smartphones blink. People regard each other in terse, empty moments. Technology represents alienation. Sex also represents alienation. Mutual regard is held with roaches, emotionally dysfunctional pets, and Mary Gaitskill, but never other people. The dust jacket claims the book is “tender and unsparing,” and the word tender comes up in more reviews than I bothered to count. In profiles, interviews, and rarefied circles of snobs, the collection’s “deft execution,” “taut” prose, “forensic” detail have been praised. The general view holds Dalla Rosa as that rare and highly-prized thing: a craftsman.
Why is craft such cause for comment? If craft is so remarkable, this must mean that writing badly is not a barrier to publication in Australia, and while nobody wants a reputation for cruelty, failing to say this produces its own contradiction: if “craft” (labor) does not produce “craft” (quality), then the latter is either innate or some transcendental haze that comes over the writer like a spell, possibly after receiving an Australia Council grant. Or, and this is my suspicion, praise of “craft” is primarily bestowed on writers who tend toward a spare, ironic, placeless style; the skill here concerned is the disciplined study of fashionable Americans, who sometimes sound “American” but mostly sound, to their own ears and everybody else’s, neutral.
Americans are freaks, but they represent the imperial centre of Western cultural production and it’s natural to be curious what they get up to. If Dalla Rosa’s reception has a touch of “local lad proves to be no worse than the foreigner”—when he gets called the “real deal” and it bears the same inflection as world class—that is hardly his fault. And Dalla Rosa is writing in a tradition of, for want of a better word, nasty stories, brutal tales told with jaunty elegance, which we perhaps do not associate with the ruddy and simpering national character. Nobody has ever praised the dark glamor of the Wheeler Centre; there is something staid, dismayingly crude, about a literature that counts Murnane among its sexiest cult figures, making some dissociation from the local an understandable position for aspiring stylists. Mary Gaitskill, Mary Gaitskill, thinks writer-character Paul as he turns to sex work in “An MFA Story,” and Bad Behavior certainly looms, ur-text to a strain of fiction that, in its anti-sentimental approach, its “transgressive” subject matter, may court accusations of bad taste but never a failure of self-knowledge. What was transgressive in 1988 is a little pat now; this kind of franchizable cynicism has become familiar, which is not to say, in Dalla Rosa’s case, that it’s poorly done; and, in fact, its very iterability is the binding principle of the collection.
In a formula foreshadowed by a tarot reading in “The Hard Thing” (“If the man is flipped one way it means a journey, a destination. If it’s flipped the other, a false start, stasis”), each story introduces a character at a turning point and watches them disintegrate: an expat in Dubai drinks himself into personal and professional disaster; a high-end retail worker is disgraced after a DIY chemical peel; a fast-food worker spirals into catastrophic debt; the owner of a monstrous cat loses her job and apartment; an aspiring singer ends up in amateur porn; a call center worker is made redundant; an MFA student fails to write a short story collection; an aspiring teenage life coach is swindled out of his money; a stagnant tourist in Tel Aviv remains stagnant; a movie star destroys what remains of her career and her relationship with her family.
These summaries are too definitive. Most of the outcomes are implied, projected beyond the stories’ narrative limits, so that the protagonists are systematically denied the dignity of a tragic moment. There are no robust secondary characters, just a series of psychological cloisters in which, over and over, the protagonists are nonplussed or surprised by their capacity to hurt others or to sustain hurt, their “small disappointments” accruing in an escalation of misfortunes, their failures of comprehension and imagination leading to a kind of automatic life, an aesthetics of compromise. Despite the substance abuse, risky sex, and willful self-sabotage, the protagonists are basically functional, never quite outside the social order, as though that would furnish the stories with too much destiny or dreary causality. Much of the humor derives from the histrionics of people who are not yet as badly off as they feel themselves to be. Dalla Rosa takes care to undercut any moment that might resemble epiphany or insight; so every story takes on the sour taste of stasis, and the collection reveals itself as a procession of false starts, or, as someone I know put it, “whips people up into terrible situations and then just leaves them there.” The original sense of threat ramifies, over its course, into resignation: the reader will be left pending, suspended in transition from bad to worse.
As with all nasty books paying their dues, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is scented with the bad breath of Bret Easton Ellis—“In the morning I showered and carefully did my skin regime. A cleanser, followed by toner, then moisturizer. Sometimes I also used serum.” Dalla Rosa, however, lacks Ellis’s rapacious hostility. The characters have feelings; the reader is simply not permitted to know them. “This made me emotional in ways I found hard to describe,” one character says. Another feels “something unspecific yet total,” then, later, “something amorphous and urgent and dull.” Does the generic “something” indicate the character’s dissociation or the narrator’s disinterest? The protagonist of “COMME” laments: “I often felt that I had made poor choices, that I had failed to capitalize in some generalized yet hyper-specific way,” which captures the problem—the constant interplay of the generalized and hyper-specific makes it difficult for any particular interpretation to prevail. “Sometimes I would do small inexplicable things like smash a glass on the floor,” says the protagonist of “The Hard Thing,” though there are plenty of available motives—frustration, isolation, stagnation—to explain the gesture. Here, as everywhere, it’s unclear what this “inexplicability” consists of—is it the narrator’s sarcasm? Is it inexplicable to the character or simply inexpressible? All the stories are like this, relayed with a cosmetically winning irony that acts as a rubber shield, repelling attempts to read more closely.
It’s in this sense that the collection comes closest to performing the anticapitalist critique lauded in its marketing, staging a one-point perspective that lacks the power to identify and describe its conditions. As Paul puts it in “An MFA Story”: “In a way everyone works for someone else, and if they don’t they work within something else, something bigger. Systems, I thought. It’s about the systems. The economy.” But this reluctance to dwell in subjectivity also has the effect of warding off what D. A. Miller called “those mortifying charges [of] sentimentality, self-indulgence, narcissism” brought against all writers in their maudlin nightmares.1 The characters are depthless, vain, selfish; but no one can accuse the writer of wallowing with them in the mire. After all, he put them there.
Dalla Rosa’s reserve extends to the use of detail; scenery is witnessed in a Vaseline blur, patrician abstractions that gesture to external, worldly knowledge—“The sky faintly glowed the way it does in summer”—deferring to the reader to fill in the blanks. “Everything was white marble … everyone was drunk. Everyone was an expat.” This hyperbole is never in tension with a named reality—what at first seems like a slick comic effect becomes evasive, unstable, oddly anaesthetic. The succession of “someones,” “sometimes,” “somethings,” “things,” “kinds of,” “types of” act as placeholders for a literal that doesn’t arrive. Sensations are reported, not felt—“I felt the heat”—so the fact of experience is registered but not analyzed, itemized rather than expressed. When specific details are given, they’re discordant, deliberately difficult to assimilate into a broader narrative meaning: “For some reason there was also a magician … Everyone from the office kept asking me, what’s up with the magician.” Or, describing the gait of a demonic cat: “like a crab’s or something poorly and disturbingly computer generated,” the non-thing given the status of thingness, as if “something” elaborates on “crab,” as if this were an intensification of detail rather than a diminishment. This stylistic imprecision is a serial feature of description, a deflection or a defence against a more exact reading. It’s like the prose is shrugging.
Every story takes on the sour taste of stasis, and the collection reveals itself as a procession of false starts.
Is this what is meant by the book’s “relatability’, its “familiarity”? An emotional reality so gestural that a careless reader might accidentally fall into it, like a mine shaft? Though, of course, the lack of specificity implies a universal subject capable of assuming the evacuated space: an ontological whiteness. Bobuq Sayed has argued, in ASTRA, that the collection’s “racial exclusion is not an oversight at all. It is the point.” Certainly it is deliberate, as everything in this collection is deliberate. It is all point, all purpose, not so much written as rendered.
Where a novel is an argument, a short story is an axiom. It’s the minor form for a reason. A novelist may have to publish three or four times before revealing that, like the proverbial flat character, they’re essentially possessed by one idea. A short story writer is less lucky; a story lasts just long enough for some central fixation or moral ideology to crystallize before it collapses under the imperative of economy—then the gesture must be repeated. This is why short stories can be uniquely frustrating to read and to write; it’s also why they work so well when the prevailing mode is nastiness, bad people doing cruel and stupid things. The fetish figure of a typical short story collection might be the revenant, the same preoccupations returning again and again to be killed off in entertaining ways. Rather than the revenant, we might say, the fetish of An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life is the Sim.
This motif of the digital puppet pursues the characters across the collection. “The stars indicated I was under the influence of an inverted Mars,” says the narrator of “The Hard Thing,” “which meant I could act like a body possessed.” In “Charlie”:
Emma had begun to see herself as a model in one of her renders, or more so as an Emma avatar in the game The Sims or a Sims Brooklyn expansion pack. Emma’s avatar was 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.
At one point, Emma’s brain feels like an overworked MacBook; when she’s angry, her MacBook overheats. Experience in “COMME” is “like a certain kind of YouTube video,” or, for the movie star in “In Bright Light,” like “watching a 2D movie that was now 3D.” In “Contact,” in which a call center worker is automated out of her job, the character views her hallway as “a low-rendered loading screen she must navigate as her apartment buffers.” Similarly, in “Short Stack,” Pancake Saloon employee Sam watches YouTube tutorials about playing Grand Theft Auto; within the gameplay, he fantasizes that he might
come home from work, open his save file then have his character do a shift at the Pancake Saloon, entering through a 3D-rendered employee entrance, wearing a uniform identical to Sam’s, and then come back to his crib, which would be filled with all the cool shit Sam would buy.
This is not a fantasy of sensuous life but of point-scoring. “People wanted to see themselves flattened onto a laptop’s screen,” as one character puts it: contained, possessed, invulnerable, playable characters under the control of some remote operator, manipulable doubles in the scenes of their own lives. Fantasies of becoming new, becoming digital, and becoming ideal intertwine throughout the collection, consonant with the recurring urge to dematerialize through drug use, restricted eating, virtual reality, risky sex. The aspiration is one of self-cancellation: “I wanted to kill myself but in the way that wouldn’t actually kill me,” says the protagonist of “COMME.” In “Contact”:
sometimes she doesn’t feel like she is on the ledge but that she is already falling, and when she does her vision seizes and the double monitor in front of her blurs. Then it passes. This is not unusual. Like changing tabs. An image. A GIF. A closed-circuit loop.
This twinned fantasy of efficient life and self-cancellation is connected, again and again, to the creative process. In “Charlie,” the feeling of creative possibility is described as a “pre-migraine aura” that narrows and disappears before it can be put to use. “I had it” says the protagonist of “The Fame”—which he does not—“it” being the quality of genius, rather than its exercise. The “feeling that [his] dreams were not only possible but imminent” is a species of pre-migraine, figured negatively as the character chases after fame devoid of content. The protagonist of “Contact,” possibly the most optimistic story in the collection, feels “something close to joy” when she writes poetry, described as “little stabs at the infinite.” Here, as elsewhere, creativity is the byproduct of a fleeting state, a grace opposed to and by any kind of work. One of her poems, “Bad Artist Statement,” “described the things she or other people had done but in the present tense as if in the moment of doing them,” naming with a wink this very trope of unreflective immediacy, a prophylactic against contemplation.
The state of creative possibility is associated with a bright light, from the ambiguous close of “I Feel It” with its “Phosphenes. Sparks. A burning filament. A bright light,” to its most literal extreme in “In Bright Light,” in which an actress remembers shooting on location, “submerged in bright light, surrounded by technicians or the thin walls of an RV trailer, color-coded Post-it-noted scripts spread out before her.” “As the reader, you see flashes of light,” Dalla Rosa says, in Granta, of his ideal story. “Bright light” is a good refrain, evocative but nonspecific, poetic without verging on the baroque or sentimental—a simple, ringing rhyme. Even in the stories’ heightened moments, those “stabs at the infinite,” the lyricism is faint, amorphous. It gestures at a more robust symbolism, at the possibility of a grander interpretive system—but then the doors close. Here, the ostensibly anti-capitalist depiction of the burned-out precariat, the exploited creative, obscures an assumption that art-making is not about work but about a state of potential, accessible to those who possess a certain quality. Is this the neurosis of the craftsman—the humiliating dream of genius, which must be concealed beneath so much technical drudgery, so much work?
In “An MFA Story,” this is made explicit. Alongside the preceding “Contact,” this story’s loose, self-aware identification of narrator and author—“I had a short story collection to put together,” says the protagonist, Paul—bleeds out into a reading of the whole, ironizing writerly subjectivity while covertly recentering it. Paul believes in the opposition between “getting writing material” and “just doing labor.” When forced to do the latter, he says: “I thought of myself not as I often did, as a character in a short story, but as a character in a low-budget reality-TV show, something that played in the early hours of the morning.” Paul actively dislikes writing; he hates his writer roommate, Zhen, for his prodigious output, which, unlike Paul’s, is “beautiful, surprising, alive.” He tells us that he “wanted from the MFA what most people want from most things, that is, total fulfilment of the self.” When inspiration does come, he defers writing to “some unspecified point in the future.”
Desperate for money over the summer, Paul takes a job helping a slumlord evict squatters from disused properties, eventually finding himself emptying out the neighboring apartment of his only friend, Cyndi. “YOUR STORIES ARE SHIT” she writes in retaliation, temporarily destroying Paul’s fantasy that he might be the kind of person who can make art, though he does attempt to rationalize: “Cyndi was not a literary critic,” he says. Like all potential moments of growth, this is foiled almost immediately. Cyndi admits she never actually read his stories, followed by a further reversal—
“It’s not a big deal,” she says. “No-one will.” “This felt right to me. I mean, it was true,” says Paul. It’s one of the best comedic moments in the book; it is also, as is often the case with comedy, the most defensive. Paul’s anxiety is that he is “the worst kind of writer, the one who took the stories of others and used them as metaphors to illuminate themselves.” Since art-making has been figured as a state, not an activity, the fear is not simply that he has nothing to say but that he is the kind of person who has nothing to say. “An MFA Story” fosters a specific kind of irreproachability, disinterested in the satisfaction of its own fantasy at any level of mediation, such that it playfully rebukes the possibility of its being read to those reading it. The self-deprecation underscores that there is nothing more pathetic or degraded than being, not only a writer, but the “worst kind of writer”—motivated by an ideal and not an ethic.
It has been difficult, in writing this review, to talk about the stories as independent entities, although most were published in various places over the course of several years. Taken together, they feel like so many neurotic repetitions of affect, action, and motif blurring together with an almost novelistic grace. All the equivalences, the neat homologies, seem to aspire to a narrative whole that could be perceived, instantaneously, in each of its parts, like an infinite regress.
What’s weird is the way the book invites a paranoid reading while deadening the reader’s curiosity about what its connections could actually mean. The endless redoubling feels less like a complication than a redundancy, a neutralization. The collection’s many digital avatars, its ideal others, don’t obscure a more ominous reality; over and over we’re beaten with the knowledge that the real is only the degraded double of the simulation. Sensing these connections doesn’t feel like a discovery, but rather the passive reception of a preordained detail, a figuration of the same within the same, like biblical time or a k-hole. Without much in the way of psychological depth nor a vision of social totality, the collection adopts a suspicious stance while offering nothing substantial to be suspicious of; a neutral cynicism, critical but not oppositional, paranoia without an object.
That capitalism often gets treated as a “theme” is a misconception which is highly convenient to capital. Books are not statements about the things they represent. As Susan Sontag pointed out, art isn’t a matter of simple substitution; the only time you’re really in a character’s shoes is in porn and, even then, exceptions abound. An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life pits “individuals” and “late capitalism” against each other in a rudimentary formal system, the latter a nonspecific metaphysical adversary, which finds a more concentrated expression in certain implied or lightly sketched characters—slumlord, bad customer, Harvey Weinstein?—but which is ultimately known only as “something else, something bigger.” Its capitalist “critique,” then, resides in the depiction of odd jobs, variously humiliating, unfulfilling, illegal, precarious, and underpaid, occurring in a vacuum. And its restrained and selective style ensures that the intention to critique is clearly signalled via tone, bypassing the need for it to be apprehended in the narrative movement, in a character system, in a symbolic structure.
In “Short Stack,” Sam, a fast-food worker with a brain injury and enormous personal debts, is berated by a businesswoman for his bad service.
The woman spoke to Sam like she thought Sam had made poor life choices and she was personally offended … She communicated that she was training her children to be members of society, members who would not serve people pancakes, or have debt, or if they did have debt they would have the good kind of debt, the kind that could be leveraged.
Here, the general tone of remote, sovereign irony lifts; the text declares its class consciousness like clouds parting for the hand of God. The reader can rally against this callous judgement, conveniently located in a minor character, even though they have little sense, themselves, of Sam’s subjectivity, the meaning of his choices, even though the story’s implication is that he is too passive and foolish to really have made any. This allows the reader to align with the narrator in righteous irony; it also allows us to “relate” to the situation without doing anything so hairy as exposing the boundaries of our own subjectivity to a provisional other. Rather, at the right moment, the character recedes and our readerly judgement moves in to occupy the scene. But once there, we find we do not really have enough information to formulate a thought.
“For most of my life I’d desired things I thought were stupid to desire but desired all the same,” says the narrator of “COMME.” For most of the collection, we are encouraged to believe that the stupidity of desire negates the need, or rather the possibility, of thinking too hard about it. Why do these characters fail to do the thing they might do, the hard thing, structurally embedded in each of these stories as the negative path, the road not taken? Such questions are futile. Each character is so calibrated to their apportioned arcs that there is no excess, no overflow, and we never again wonder what happens to them, the way we never wonder what happens to a Sim in a saved game. Adorno writes that we like happy endings because they “[set] free for a moment the glimmering realisation that you have wasted your life.”2 What happens when we’re given the inverse? Not the opportunity to be cancelled by an ideal that the characters dream of, but to have the normative organization of our own lives affirmed by a malformed, degraded real? Etymologically, and perhaps ethically, the opposite of perfect is not bad but incomplete. The opposite of utopia is not dystopia but reality—everything that is yet unfinished. So what is the political charge of reading a book of nonendings, false starts, stases? A book so crafted that nothing escapes the asphyxiating power of the writer, polishing his sentences until we can see the bright light in them?
It’s as if Dalla Rosa is running the same simulation over and over, adjusting certain variables of age, class, ability, sometimes location, but always with a grim certainty that the result will be the same, that there is no escape from the formless, claustrophobic contemporary. And yet he does not relinquish the possibility of transcendence, painting an escape hatch on the stage floor with lyrical flourishes that carefully avoid anything so crassly expressive as actual symbolism, flickers of possibility to distract from the mire which sinks character and reader alike. But the narrative movement remains the same: meaningless variations within a hopelessly circumscribed world, where the narrator has the power to delete the swimming pool ladder but not to change the rules of play.
Is this “pure style”? The emphasis in cultural criticism has shifted, at least in some circles, back to the sensuous surface, in a move against what Sontag called the “enabling morality of an essentially humanistic criticism.”3 Avant-garde American lit mags are declaring themselves in favor of style over content, though there are yet few theories of how to generate one without the other. The late Giancarlo DiTrapano, founding editor and publisher of Tyrant Books, sought “a style so personal that if you had to see one of their sentences written on a board, you would know exactly who had written it.” In this tradition, the editors of Forever magazine seek “style over plot.” “Every sentence is a standalone piece,” says the editor of Heavy Traffic; a piece with style “is just a burnout”—“It just explodes and fizzles out.” Dalla Rosa, again in his “Notes on Craft” in Granta: “a great short story … appears, everything else fades away, then it’s gone. Miraculous. An act of transubstantiation, matter simultaneously changed and unchanged.”
Where does it come from, this insistence that style is both molecular and infinitely scalable, something that happens almost exclusively at the level of the sentence, but which, once seeded, works with an unfolding symmetry? “Pure style” is a formalism so idealist it literally does not make sense. Ketamine is involved, but was Sontag on ketamine?
Without wanting to add unduly to the eulogies for my generation, much of our political despair is about time, about not having enough of it—the future is a dense figure with a shortening shadow, and soon we will touch its heel!—rolling around in the wrongness of our lives, coerced into believing another world is impossible, buffeted between revolutionary impulse and resignation, trying to retain some contact with the real. While this may be cowardly, spoiled, facile, it’s less disaffected than it is desperate. Maybe fiction such as Dalla Rosa’s tries to metabolize a collective grief that can only find expression in an alienation so profound it ceases to be individual, and this leads us to the loss of detail that traditionally produced emotional texture and psychological dimension in fiction, delivering us to something like form without content, the ideal shorn of its purchase on reality.
This perhaps explains the no one of the stories. But why the nowhere? Why create an inside world bereft of the particular, and then deny it an outside?
As Sontag wrote: “there is no neutral, absolutely transparent style”; no matter its pretensions to pure expression, art is always “selective and artificial.” The other thing she said—an idea enjoying renewed popularity—is that “art does not advocate.” Regardless of their subject matter, “the greatest artists attain a sublime neutrality.” This neutrality is thus, for Sontag, a neutrality of content, not of style, which, though it can never itself be neutral, has the power to neutralize even the most ethically dubious material (cf. Leni Riefenstahl). Only a shallow or flimsily constructed piece of work—one that is only a “substitute for life” rather than a form of it—can be reduced in its reception to an ethical statement. When dealing with committed art, the proper focus of attention is not the subject but the mode of expression, which brings us, annoyingly, back to craft.
The weird thing about much of this alt-lit style-as-content discourse is the critical attempt to reinscribe morality onto the text in a way that flatters the moral intentions of the writer. While universality has been disposed of as a positive criterion for fiction, the humanist emphasis on connection persists under the guise of “tenderness.” “Tenderness” could be anything—a nebulous value that is defined in opposition to, I guess, corporate control, intelligent automation, faceless online hordes, niche political extremism, the upwards concentration of dead capital, and all those other players on the miserable board of the current imaginary. Tenderness suggests a shared vulnerability, a kind of sympathetic presumption of the paucity of souls. As with D. A. Miller’s description of sympathy, it has “a strategic double valence: far below, and therefore far above, the threshold of ideology.”4
The emphasis on style in alt-lit converges with a certain thematic nastiness, suggesting that, because art is not ennobling at the level of content, the antisocial is in fact its proper domain, which has the contradictory effect of prescribing certain subject matters as appropriate to stylish fiction. In fact, the very presence of such subject matter can be taken to imply an aspiration to neutrality, ergo style. But this is a low-grade evil, concerned less with the cardinal, the kind of sin that invites tricky existential questions, than with the distasteful, cooler-than-thou disavowals of bourgeois humanism that, in their obsession with the violation of manners, are more bourgeois than anything. The appeal to tenderness is thus necessary because it brokers a compromise between the “sublime neutrality” of an aesthetic indifference to evil and the assumed moral neutrality of those vulnerable to it. The insistence that we are all insipid, spiritually deadened, vacuous and desperate, an internet-hardened fatalism that confuses the material conditions of alienation with the limits of the human spirit, becomes not a critique but a form of empathy. So “pure style” is always tender, reconciling vulnerability with generalized contempt, giving license to the artist who, affirming nothing, really, about possible worlds, offers no new aspect of reality for our interpretation—offers nothing but the performance of their artistry, which itself can reveal nothing except its own constructedness; and the self-cancellation of the artist becomes a metonym for our shared condition, doomed to suck until we die.
I had a conversation recently with a friend who said I was able to appreciate “craft”—citing this collection as an example—which she said she was unable to do because she could not appreciate a book independent of its political project. What I think she meant—this kind of ventriloquizing is shady but it works just as well if you assume it’s a perverse confection of my own devising and not a real interaction—was that I am white, and so a certain indifference to evil is a condition of my presence and artistic flourishing in a context, i.e. so-called Australia, predicated on profound and ongoing violence. An indifference to evil would here mean a disinterest in the identity at the basis of fiction, or a disbelief that there is an identity at the basis of fiction, or, more positively, that the self is only a “dramatic symbol,” an “I” that is a pure representation of the will. And this is the position associated with the outdated bourgeois ideal of the artist—the simultaneous assertion of nonidentity and absolute identity that Mark McGurl identifies with, respectively, the shiftlessness of the Joycean career abroad and the fixity of the room of one’s own.5
Without room here to account fully for its pitfalls, maybe the redeeming kernel of this idea is the suggestion that a book can be—should be—more than a bad artist statement, or at least that, while writing, we should sustain the fantasy that such a thing is possible. But it’s no accident that the difficulty of securing a room of one’s own is quite literally the subject of Dalla Rosa’s book, whether the characters are out-of-art artists doing odd jobs, would-be artists doing odd jobs, or losers doing odd jobs that an artist might do; nor that they all, without exception, seek or have sought their careers abroad, where self-fulfilment eludes them. The ghost of the bourgeois artist persists even as we shake our self-aware little fists at its grave; to be petty, self-absorbed, and alienated from the conditions of their own creative efforts is the assumed prerogative of the white writer. This consigns other writers to the paraliterature of the particular, of place and landscape—of the specific, and so the material, and so the political—although whether this can be meaningfully disaggregated from the cynicism of the literary marketplace is hard to say. Arguably, nasty stories have their own virtues, though I here make no case for this except that I like to read them.
But the more this nastiness is presented as a fact of style, the less available it is to censure or approbation, in good or bad faith. On the surface, there is nobody in An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life more pathetic than the contemporary writer; nobody more disempowered, precarious, lacking in vitality or connection to inspiration. The invitation to identify character with writer is more than just a cheeky metafictional nod. For white settler writers, it offers a sort of self-ironizing that covertly reinscribes their own protagonicity, what Berlant calls “white likeability” operating in defence of itself6; and part of this defence is a foreclosure of the reader’s potential interpretive authority, their ability to relate to the text beyond the terms established by the writer. This posture of weakness, of failed imagination, is a form of self-protection. The slippage between the bad, nasty, abject character, and the impotent, passive, unlikeable character serves a function: no matter our contempt for the latter, they are structurally identified with victimhood, incapable of meaningful or robust imaginative work, so disempowered are they by the directive to self-fashion. This impotence acts as a screen for the process actually underway—that is, the persistent expression of white subjectivity, inoculated from critique. There is an incredible petulance to this—that if the white writer experiences themselves as boring, cowardly, morally compromised, and politically hidebound, the solution is to narrow the field of symbolic representation to the ambit of their own limited affective authority, upon which they cannot be challenged. So the placelessness and the disaffiliation with the particular are part of the same parcel.
To be petty, self-absorbed, and alienated from the conditions of their own creative efforts is the assumed prerogative of the white writer.
What exactly is the shame that fuels this disaffiliation? We could call it cultural cringe, but there’s more to it than that. To be an institutional writer—a writer who has studied writing, who was perhaps motivated by the desire to be a writer before the desire to write anything in particular—is a source of shame as great, if not greater, than being a smelly provincial from the colonies. For some privileged few in the bloom of youth, the creative writing program and what remains of the nanny state (student loans, skerricks of welfare, arts “funding”) make possible a writerly subjectivity that has no content but itself, that is, shamefully, felt to be an empty idea; and this is the cringe, the fear—of having no “cultural” content, no history, and thus no creative maturity—warping in tandem with a postmodern reflexivity to concentrate in what we might call a settler move to impotence: a style that disavows its own creative authority by eschewing content as such, its own ability to be significant to itself. Reading this cringing literature, you may “relate,” if you wish; what you may not do is test your felt reality, your knowledge of the world, against the writer’s fully articulated vision of life.
Fredric Jameson says that even texts which seek to mollify radical oppositional drives must animate these feelings in the first place. You have to dig up the revenant to hit it with an axe. Perhaps the answer to this question—what, in the first place, do these stories animate?—is what could be called “empty recognition,” a species of that “empathy” so often invoked by humanities apologists who want to defend the social utility of fiction. In the case of An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, the identification is not with the character or even with the narrator, but with the writer. We identify with the entity that exercises agency, and his is the only subjectivity here. It is his weariness, his judgement, his humor, and his contempt that are the occasions for engagement, giving the reader no choice but to perch with him beneath the brim of his sovereign little hat. It is in this sense that relatability and narratability become one and the same, making the title a call and response: Whose exciting and vivid inner life is this? It’s yours.
Partly what an indifference to evil might mean for literature is that there is no moral subjectivity in a book; that a virtuous character does not make for a virtuous story or a virtuous writer for a virtuous novel; that committed art does nothing so dull as make a statement about the self. To write a story with virtue in mind could only result in something that lacked one or other level of inner life, something so defensively self-possessed that nothing could live inside it. We might think of this as a slightly sideways implication of the idiom: the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Bataille said, of Kafka’s books, that they are “doomed to the flames: they are there, but they are there in order to disappear as though they have already been annihilated.”7 Is this not also the death wish of a local literature, scantly read, seldom reprinted? Is this self-cancellation not a part of the ecosystem, the devastating conviction that, as we’ve learned from recent scandals, even award-winning work is doomed to such obscurity that ignominy is its most realistic aspiration? What more can an Australian writer hope for than a moment of bright light—the fame, the flash, the book launch at Readings—before the darkness closes in once more and they are again small, poor, obscure, derivative? But this postcolonial melancholia does not extend to everyone. For whom is narrativity exhausted, encroached upon so deeply by the withholding of the bitch muses that writing can only be known as an ideal state? It can’t be that there is nothing left for anyone except the desire to desire, the dream of volition, the will to style? It can’t be, and it isn’t; this is an institutional pathology. I mean this descriptively.
What is magisterial, if paranoid, is that Dalla Rosa has staged this syndrome aesthetically. Such a reading is made possible by the conventions rather than the subversions of the book: the virtue and vice of nasty stories generically is that they all indirectly express the problematic of their own conception—that is, the book is not “about” capitalism; it’s an MFA story—and it is a testament to its control and clarity—its craft—that this performance of writerly subjectivity can be parsed in the first place. It is not my job to discern how much of the above is “conscious”; what I will say is that the collection radiates with intention. That’s the best and the worst thing about it.
Do I ask too much of this book? Yes. When I was a teenager, a girl I knew was pilloried online for making a poll about her Halloween costume; the options were “porn star lesbian” or “bull dyke.” After being roundly condemned, she made a defiant post: I think you’ll find it’s about having fun at a party. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was her triumph. A decade has passed, and these words are dearer to me than any immortal line of poetry, the soft nothings of my beloved, the noise my phone makes when I receive a payment. Nine times out of ten, Chrissy is right. It is about having fun at a party. If everyone focused more on having fun at a party and less on scrutiny and reprobation, puritanical introspection, the Protestant ethic of scabbing and pissing and bitching, everything would still be awful, but we would have better parties and better books.
And yet, to paraphrase the greatest downer in the Frankfurt School, a wrong book can’t be written rightly. Real style is so rare it shouldn’t be wasted on itself. I don’t wish Dalla Rosa had written a better book—better as in more political, more moral. I wish he had written an evil book—no judicious repetitions, wry restraint, rigid gameplay, clever evasions. No ideal, no defence. Just the hard thing.
- D. A. Miller,The Novel and the Police (University of California Press, 1988). ↩
- Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Bloomsbury, 1981). ↩
- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (Penguin Classics, 2009). ↩
- D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents (Princeton University Press, 1981). ↩
- Mark McGurl, The Program Era (Harvard University Press, 2009). ↩
- Lauren Berlant in On Whiteness, ed. The Racial Imaginary Institute (SPBH Editions, 2022). ↩
- Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil (Penguin Classics, 2012). ↩