To celebrate the release of TLB32: the Capital Issue, we at TLB’s website are running a ‘Capital'–themed week, featuring original content especially commissioned for the website. Today: Paul Dalla Rosa on literature and precarity.
Literature and the attempt to create it seems intimately connected with capital, that is, who has it and who doesn’t. Who has money, who has no money, who to sleep with to get money, the indignities suffered in the pursuit of money, and the laws of relativity meaning there is always someone with more than you but always someone with a lot less. I think about this constantly. I have just moved into a house that’s over a century old. The rent is perhaps more than I can afford but is cheap for the area. When I change postcodes the Internet tells me rent should be budgeted at 28 per cent of my monthly income. Whose rent is 28 per cent of their actual income? The answer is no one I know. As I read at night, the floodlights of the tenements across the road lighting up my room like a second sun, I pause, hold the book against my chest and imagine myself doing the jobs I might be capable of and often ones that I am not. Governess, I think. Steve Martin impersonator. Kept woman. Internet celebrity. Long lost heiress. Acquirer of dead souls.
I have been given a fellowship. For ten weeks I have a desk, an all-hours pass to the building that holds that desk, and a small stipend, which, if I don’t spend stupidly, will collectively pay for a month’s rent. There are welcoming drinks. There is free imported beer and two trays filled with sushi. A large group of people move around the room, cycling through the fellows. At this point in time, depending on the week, I am either underemployed or overemployed. There are speeches from benefactors and a former fellow whose book is being published by a major publisher. As they talk I inch my way to the drinks table. Afterwards someone whose role in this whole affair seems somewhat vague tells me that the biscuits in the kitchen are not communal biscuits. I nod and then they say “It’s exciting! You must feel so grateful,” and I, who has had too much beer but not much else, slur, “Sure, I’m being paid.”
When I ask myself what exactly I want from life right now, you know, big picture stuff, I think of Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? I want the fictional Sheila’s salon job. Sheila goes to the salon, massages and washes people’s hair, sweeps, and looks beautiful amongst beautiful things. In many ways Sheila and I are similar because we both tell people we are working on a book, or in her case a play, that we are not working on and we no longer give excuses as to why we are drinking alone. The fact this depiction of her is itself in a finished book and mine is in my life that lacks any finished book, doesn’t phase me. Really, all I would like is a job that is stable and requires little of me, where people confess their secrets, preferably not to me exactly, but within my earshot. Greatness may come at a later date.
I teach a series of creative writing workshops. The series are free and open to drop-ins from the public. Though the age requirement is clearly stated to be above thirteen there is almost always a child of eight or nine who has been left there by a parent. Today there is an eight-year-old Indian boy who is possibly mute. When I ask him his name he opens his mouth to speak and then slowly closes it, like a goldfish. There is also a man who is my age or possibly older. This can make dynamics difficult. Who the fuck am I? I’m sympathetic to the question. For the entire session I feel him seethe with rage. When I look at him I see his jaw is clenched. I put on a Youtube video called ‘Editing Your Story,’ because the workshop is on editing short stories and so for seven minutes we watch, waiting for anything about editing but there is nothing. The video is either not the one I intended to show, one I thought I had seen but not, or perhaps just isn’t what I remembered it to be. For its entirety the man glares at me. He grips his pen as if he means to snap it.
To eat up the last ten minutes I ask everyone to name their favourite short stories and why it is they like them. I am trying to get someone to say concision. By the time it is the man’s turn to speak he seems furious, too far gone. I prepare myself. “I don’t read,” his voice seems to crack, “short stories.” Before he can say more, the boy speaks. He says, “Harry Potter.”
My friend Craig comes over to visit. We sit on my floor and eat lentils I have undercooked. He tells me he once lived only two hundred metres up the road and that his place was broken into three times. Once, he and one of his housemates saw what they believed to be the attempt of a fourth. It was the afternoon. They were watching Survivor. He looked out into the yard and saw a hand, flapping, just above the back wall. It was trying to grasp onto it, failing, then moved side to side. “It looked like it was waving,” he says. He told his housemate to look out at the yard and she saw it too, and then a second hand and the beginning of a head. They went outside. His housemate, who is now a cop, called out, “We’re right here motherfucker.” The hand disappeared and they heard the sound of footsteps running away.
“This was like a decade ago,” he says. When he leaves it is late and I lie in bed and feel my room shudder as the tram thunders by. I hear voices outside my window. I think someone could rob my house or do things to the people inside of it. It is conceivable a man might crawl in through the kitty door. I have done so when I’ve forgotten my keys. I do not know what this man will then do. I get up and use the chain lock on my room’s door. I lie back in bed but realise the chain is very loose and easy for a hand, grasping side-to-side, to undo.
Friends of mine, artists, though I rarely see much art, tour Europe. They have just finished art school and take photos of each other floating in the Mediterranean, on craggy shores, drinking in the cabin of a white speedboat. In each post their skin is more golden than in the last. I can’t help but notice each country they travel through is in austerity. Financial papers publish articles on them day after day. The articles sometimes betray a sense of glee. There are references to unpaid debts, poor decisions, elaborate ways in which public servants are paid for nothing, and that this is well deserved, like an ancient tragedy that was foreshadowed and so, to some extent, may be enjoyed. There are riots in the streets but there seems to be riots everywhere. My friends hashtag their photographs #thisisliving.
At a call centre I am told to be a passive voice on a telephone, nothing more, or at least not while I’m on shift. I do not resent this. My supervisor wears slacks and a pink business shirt. He can order people around but at the same time his job is a lot like my job, except he no longer cold calls randomized numbers but trains other people to do so. He can do this because he has been doing it for six years. He is an artist, not in a didactic sense but a literal one with canvases and paint. I know this because while I am a passive voice on the telephone I also eavesdrop. Late at night, near the end of a shift, I hear him speaking to a friend on the phone. This friend sells apartments to rich people, well, people who can buy apartments. My supervisor speaks about how it makes sense for his friend to let him hang his art in the apartments while prospective buyers tour. If they’re buying expensive and overpriced apartments they will be able to put down ten grand for some expensive, overpriced art. I can tell his friend isn’t convinced. I can tell this because my supervisor’s voice is not passive and soft. It wavers. “I only need one person to buy one painting.”
Some people I went to school with are getting married, others having babies, one has even been born again. I scroll through Facebook photos of people’s weddings, their weight gain, weight loss, honeymoons, the photos of the units they have bought, the apartments they have placed down payments on. Other people live like me but not really like me because they live in London and Berlin. I go to an engagement party. A function room’s been hired and there are silver balloons that bobble against the ceiling. In the bathroom, a man stands next to me at the urinal. He starts a conversation as I go to wash my hands. He asks what I’m doing nowadays and I say what I am doing this weekend which is waiting tables. He replies, And you used to think you were so fucking smart.
“What did you say?” I say. I see his shoulders tense.
“I didn’t say anything at all.”
I am lying in bed. It is 4 am and all of a sudden my room is lit up for one moment in dazzling blue light. I sit up to watch electricity spark and crackle from a power outlet across the room. Then it is gone. Everything is dark. I act. I leap up and turn the power off. I slowly unplug plugs, dismantle extension cords. I look for the fusebox, can’t find the fusebox and then lie back in bed, on my side, staring at the outlet in the wall. In almost every horror movie economic insecurity leads to people living where they should probably not be living, until they are either dead or their lodgings, like the house of Usher, are swallowed by the earth itself. I think of this and take stock of all the things that will burn.
I take the day off work to wait for the electrician. I stream the US presidential debate. Every now and then I stop, walk to the library, plug my laptop into power, my phone. After ten minutes I quickly walk home. It has been seven hours. The electrician is not here. I call him. He says he might be round tomorrow. I will have to cancel another shift. This will make living in a precarious situation more precarious. If it was in a story I would refer to this as rising action. Somehow, I apologise into the phone as I put it down. I eat the second half of a bag of potato chips I opened a week ago. “I have a winning temperament,” Trump says. “I know how to win.”
A friend moves back from Sydney and we go out to eat. She lived in an apartment and went out with the women from her office because there was no one else she could go out with and the alternative was to sit in her apartment, alone, looking out at the city lights. Drunk one night, she ordered a hamburger from McDonald’s and sat eating it on the curb. Three women surrounded her. What are you doing, they said, what are you doing. Now she’s transferred to Melbourne where she will write social media updates and so here we are slurping ramen. I am temping in an office where everyone is a creative and because they are creative they are allowed to bring their pets to work. There is a poster in the kitchen urging people to take up meditation and one of the reasons is that it will make creative people more creative. My duties are vague but I don’t dislike them. My friend mentions a mutual friend who has stopped writing and is now studying law. We are silent for a time. Neither of us are doing much writing or making much money but I say, “There’s still time for us. There’s time for us all.”
Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer living in Melbourne. He was a 2016 Next Wave Writer-in-Residence and Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.