The People Who Report More Stress

Alejandro Varela
Astra House ($26)

by Eric Olson                     

Writers are nothing if not people watchers, but many would confess that attentiveness is a double-edged sword. In Alejandro Varela’s blisteringly frank—and equally funny—short story collection The People Who Report More Stress, eavesdroppers and overthinkers abound. Varela is as concerned with being seen as he is with seeing others, and this dichotomy accounts for his brilliance.

Varela rose to prominence with last year’s The Town of Babylon, one of three debuts named finalists for the 2022 National Book Award. Like that novel’s main character, Andrés, most of Varela’s short story protagonists are gay Latino men living in New York City. Varela asked in a recent Lit Hub essay not to conflate his characters with himself—“The critiques will be of me and not my work”—but these characters are markedly funny, and it’s impossible that their humor springs from anywhere but the author’s wry outlook.

Motifs are compiled with delightful urgency in the opening story “An Other Man,” in which the unnamed “you” takes to opening up your predictable marriage with the help of dating apps. “Once we have kids, this’ll all get more complicated,” urges your husband. “Might as well do it now.” Of course, dating apps are a breeding ground for anxiety, in particular when men compliment your “Ricky Martin vibe” and “everyone, it seems, has been at the gym for the last decade.” To boot, “Sidestepping white men proves an onerous task on a distance-based application in a hyper-gentrified neighborhood.”

In a 2022 Apogee interview, Varela revealed that growing up, “I was often the only one of me in most of the spaces I was in. I was the queer friend in the straight group of friends in college. I was the person of color in a white group of friends.” Again, we shouldn’t mistake the author for his characters. But a stark sense of otherness resonates in this collection, an estrangement rooted in compulsive thinking and self-doubt. Thankfully, the flipside of otherness is community, and when Varela steers his characters toward greener pastures—the arms of a husband, the bed of a lover, the invectives of a thoughtful leftist—fireworks ensue.

Throughout the collection, Varela documents a period of life where things threaten to settle but remain decidedly erratic. There are racial misunderstandings involving children, sexual escapades in the elevators of UN Headquarters, and struggles catching taxis as a brown man. Regardless of the situation’s immediate physical consequence, Varela maintains high stakes—after all, self-perception is everything for a protagonist. And we’re constantly reminded that it hurts to be profiled.

This paradigm comes to fruition in matters of sex, a preoccupation so central that it percolates into nearly every other aspect of the collection, politics in particular. The People Who Report More Stress is a motherlode of social criticism, made all the more poignant by its interwoven analysis of lust. This is perhaps most evident in “Comrades,” where a 41-year-old progressive looks to move on from his ex using a dating app geared specifically for liberals. “FUN FACT,” reads his profile, “Stress of inequality is leading risk factor for top 10 causes of death.”

Among this collection’s finest numbers, “Comrades” both pokes fun at and endorses unapologetic progressivism. “Is Israel the dom or the sub?” Varela’s lead asks over a martini. “It can’t be both at once.” The first dates in “Comrades” aren’t particularly successful, but neither are they out-and-out disasters. They’re merely what happens every day, all over the world, when politics and sex rub elbows.

Varela has admitted to experiencing impostor syndrome, which seems normal after an acclaimed debut. In literary terms, the author should take a measure of comfort in how his follow-up book reaches undeniable vernacular peaks, such as when he breaks the fourth wall to end “Grand Openings”:

Moral? There is no moral, but some observations about pleasure and monotony: they are powerful. They will make one do things they promised they would never do, and they will accelerate a train already in motion. At times they work in conjunction; sometimes they’re free agents. Pleasure will disrupt monotony, sure, but only momentarily. And the effort to maintain that disruption will, in most cases, lead to irreversible effects. Life continues. Until it doesn’t.

By turns tragic, rosy, and libidinous—but always thoughtful—The People Who Report More Stress relates the way in which desire both derives from and conforms to the expectations of others. Varela’s characters might not know what exactly they want, but they do know who they are. It’s the rest of the world that has trouble connecting

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