Alejandro Varela’s short story collection, The People Who Report More Stress, explores many of the same themes as his debut novel, the National Book Award finalist The Town of Babylon (2022). With biting humor, a sharp eye for the weird details that define places and relationships, a delightful sense of play and a lot of heart, he examines the intersecting lives of a group of mostly queer and Latinx New York City residents. And though many of these characters are preoccupied with similar problems and anxieties—systemic racism, gentrification, alienation and loneliness, the challenges of long-term partnership, 21st-century parenting, economic injustice and more—they are all wonderfully specific and react to life’s ups and downs in their own ways. The result is a collection that feels cohesive, thematically complex and continually surprising all at once.
One of Varela’s many strengths is the way he uses humor to cut through all the static and get to the heart of a character or situation. He seems to have an endless supply of this humor, which can be dry and witty, bleak and a little sad, or biting and satirical. In one story, a United Nations employee describes the office politics and hookup culture of the various ambassadors, politicians and aides he works with. It’s a little ridiculous and seems downright absurd at times, but it never tips over the edge into total camp. In another story, a nanny for a wealthy Swedish family ponders the (again, often absurd) happenings within their co-op building. Varela plays with this edge, blurring the line between the everyday and the extraordinary, heightening the contrasts and contradictions that exist in our stratified world in a way that makes everything he writes feel charged.
Many of the stories are interconnected, and several feature an interracial gay couple, Gus and Eduardo, as they navigate their changing relationship over the years. The stories that center on parenting, family dynamics and intimate domestic moments are especially poignant, as are the hilarious but never flippant stories about internet dating.
The People Who Report More Stress blends humor and social commentary with the thing that drives the best fiction: an honest and vulnerable exploration of messy human relationships. Fans of Varela’s first novel, as well as newcomers to his work, will find a lot to love in this collection.