Review: ‘The People Who Report More Stress’ by Alejandro Varela

the people who report more stress

The People Who Report More Stress is made up of thirteen interconnected stories that largely orbit a frictional, interracial couple living in New York City. As Eduardo and Gus flow in and out of the multiverse of Varela’s creation, overt and subdued forms of discrimination arise, pitting the men against each other and, inevitably, themselves. And so, from a series of increasingly impersonal narratives, a polemic is formed.

The collection itself opens up with a titillating blend of distress and hope. That’s because, in An Other Man, the various wonders and complications of sex come to the fore. Particularly the mechanics of arousal, which, though precise and routine by nature, are allowed to surrender to an elusive playfulness,

“he says and places his hand on your lap, less a lover and more a coach; both are a turn-on.”

When the prospect of opening up their relationship comes up, so does the realization that commitment does not have to be physically binding. And so, along with Eduardo, we’re left struggling with both the elation and deflation that stem from ruthless possibility. 

Predictably, Eduardo’s foray into the world of dating apps delivers doses of anguished hilarity. Meanwhile, the anonymity of the Digital Age reinforces the progress-challenging openness that comes with its perceived freedom. And so, as rows of potential bedmates zip across his screen, Eduardo cinches his day-to-day with increasing desperation, 

“Doesn’t he know that a middle-child’s craving for attention is an almost subcellular penury that requires an entire reimagining of society’s economic structure?”

Though touching on the political ever so briefly, the story continues to cling to Eduardo’s person, revealing the comical ways in which all of him informs his perception of others’ veneer, “He’s white or orange,” “Broad-shouldered. Late-fifties, not the vague early seventies you’d suspected at a distance.”

Ultimately, worse than the neverending disillusionment is the actual fulfillment of his desire, forever tinged with suspicion and remorse. But there’s also a world of restrained hope and romance to be gleaned from Eduardo’s hesitancy.

What’s more, the opportunity awaiting him at the story’s end outfits the text with a soul of its own, letting it swing from dismay to delight with captivating grace.

As the collection progresses, the theme of gentrification inches closer and closer, until it’s left breathing down the page. From it derives the tense relationship between violence and poverty, the unfurling of which appears to depend largely on “different income brackets.” 

Here, Varela manages to convey the thematic displacement through Eduardo’s claustrophobic overthinking, silent struggles for affirmation, and a defensiveness that aims to maintain the familiarity of one’s self without having it dominate another’s.

While still focused on the personal — specifically, a somewhat reluctant playdate — She and Her Kid and Me and Mine—glides along a foundation of gender and racial inequality, “wage-law chicanery and redlining.” 

Fairly quickly, initial chuckles are shaken off to make room for the weight of the matter at hand. Namely, the importance of exposing children to the “real world,”

“This is a cause for concern because his ideas of self, of normal, and of beauty are forming, and it matters who surrounds him now, lest he spend a lifetime undoing.”

In the end, though crucial, the story’s moral battles for our attention with flagging subtlety. This impression is one that lasts, as the fourth story in the collection, All the Bullets Were Made In My Country, marks a significant shift from the personal to the communal.

Talk of El Salvador’s past strife, the civil war, and “that massacre” amasses to throw a shadow over the generations removed from each other by distance, culture, language, and sentiments.

The ever-changing perspectives in The People Who Report More Stress, flowing from a first- to a third-person narrative, further cleave any semblance of family, unearthing the emotional displacement that haunts the stories’ protagonists.

Continuing the seamless transition from one tale to the next, Carlitos in Charge chokes the reader with its political intrigue — or, rather, subterfuge — and the betrayal that nurtures a broken heart. Consequently, futility bleeds from the story’s every word, creating that unique blend of action and inaction.

It spills into The Great Potato Famine, in which an agonizing taxi drive devolves into a flight from order — seen as either structure or directive — and its reliance on lasting prejudice,

“I long ago succumbed to the constructed order of things.”

And yet, the deeper we delve into The People Who Report More Stress, the more impersonal the collection appears. What’s interesting is that this effect doesn’t feel intentional, and seems instead to derive entirely from the stories’ hyper-political focus.

Voices blend together, views bite into each other, and words take on the resonance of a sermon as talk of socialism, the “flag-waving fear of abrogated individual rights,” and healthcare buries the brilliant kernels of storytelling gleaned at the collection’s onset.

And though Varela’s thoughts merit the space they make for themselves on the page, they seem to tumble into it gracelessly, possessed by a hunger for representation — not necessarily expression.

The most evocative stories are usually the ones that pounce on a single life, grasping a single mind. From the acutely personal, tales of humanity have been conditioned to unfold naturally. In The People Who Report More Stress, the individual is mostly smothered, distrusted as he is with the magnitude of the message carved into his body.

Eventually, the words begin to feel too heated for the skin on which they’re bared. And so, as The Six Times of Alan (And the First Two Hundred Years of Eduardo) opens up, the conduit for political thought is activated.

However, though the characters’ views and experiences come across as one, they do manage to point to the commonality argued for at the start of The People Who Report More Stress. The overall impression is that, perhaps, the fantastic breadth of perspectives arranged on the page would work better as a collection of lyrical essays.

Structured differently, themes of the wealth gap that has “sustained anti-Black racism for centuries,” police brutality, and institutional discrimination might not seem so far removed from consequence.

Humor does manage to make a soothing reappearance, mainly in the form of therapy sessions. But it also informs the bitter case of white people overestimating the age of Black children by either four or twenty years,

“In other words, depending on the white person, a ten-year-old Black child is either fourteen or thirty.”

From Eduardo’s reaction, we see that action serves as a counterbalance to a passive world. And, more importantly, an impassioned mind.

Then, as The People Who Report More Stress nears its conclusion, we’re guided back to the personal. In Waiting, a long-term couple separates, leaving one consumed by rage at the daily discrimination he faces, and the other engulfed by the absence of his partner.

In Comrades, a search for a mate begets tedious, romance-smothering discussions about politics and inertia. It’s not until we reach Grand Openings that we’re made to pause and reconsider the entirety of what we’ve digested.

That’s because, in the penultimate story, Varela throws the doors of his multiverse wide open. Succinct and wounding, the story’s paragraphs recount the potential trajectories of the central couple’s lives. In some, they live and die for each other. In others, they find that they can only live with the memory of a shared past, the only tangible wealth.

There’s something eccentric and high-energy about this mode of storytelling, which is really just an endless draft in the making; much like life itself. What’s undeniable is that the vitality encountered here breathes life back into The People Who Report More Stress,

“observations about pleasure and monotony: they are powerful.”

There’s something deeply unsettling about a life made abstract. Ultimately, it both demystifies the concept of experience and serves as the greatest conductor of sentiment. 

We understand that it’s all so brief, so senseless. We are alive at the edge of a precipice, the end that is a perpetual beginning. And, when acknowledged, the great unknown grinds color, gender, and the body into one.

Perhaps forcing the reader to surrender to this age-old wisdom was Varela’s aim all along. If so, beware; this short story collection causes a furor of the metaphorical soul.

The People Who Report More Stress will be published by Astra Publishing House on April 4, 2023.


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