The debut collection of fiction from poet and editor Daniel Zomparelli isn’t a daring adventure into a new genre for the author. Rather, it’s a natural complement to the niche he has created with his poetry – a neurotic, comedic commentary on the anxieties of the millennial gay middle class (I can say this because I’m an anxious, middle-class gay millennial, too). Zomparelli adds to a sub-genre of Canadian writing I like to call “Gay Sex Now” – “now” as in “these days,” but also in reference to the immediacy of experience that characterizes the work of other gay poets such as Marcus McCann and Ben Ladouceur, and fiction writers like Andy Sinclair.
Zomparelli’s short stories and vignettes test out different flavours of neurosis. Themes, and a few characters, sporadically develop and transform across different stories, mostly centered around gay dudes hooking up, dating, and feeling alienated about hooking up and dating. There’s a self-obsessed Instagram queen who notoriously broke up with his boyfriend on YouTube. After appearing in an early story, he returns toward the end of the collection as the unconvincing and generic star of a reality show. Or there is Ryan, perpetually playing the role of the not particularly crazy, genuinely good guy who undergoes a series of awkward and strange meet-ups via gay apps.
Most of Zomparelli’s characters are more than wacky, they’re downright parodic. In one of the most striking stories, an office worker named Kevin loses his shit when a stranger compliments him (“Nice shorts, bro!”) shortly after his barista puts real milk in his soy latte (he’s lactose intolerant). It seems silly because it is, but the breakdown is fast-paced and frantic. At several moments in the collection, the sometimes necessary armour of defensive gay bitchiness is swapped out for misanthropy and social ineptitude. These are the personae we all worry about projecting, come to life.
This parody pushes toward the surreal as relationships become simulacra and exaggeration becomes ordinary. In “Craig Has Very Nice Skin,” the typical gay anxiety is ratcheted up for a man (or perhaps inhuman being) whose skin will literally fall off if he doesn’t tuck it carefully under a fitted cap. In “Fake Boyfriend,” an employee of a texting boyfriend service breaches the boundaries of made-up, mediated romance and finds himself deep in something all too real.
The style of Everything Is Awful teaches you how to read its techno-paranoid, fragmented reality. The text dips into emails and text messages, therapy dialogues, Yelp reviews, and blips of prose poetry justified against the bottom right of the page. The game for the reader is to recognize themselves in the more satirical takes on the iPhone era, have a weird laugh, and then find some relief in a few chosen moments of sweetness and melancholy. One of these is “The License,” where an older Italian man complains endlessly about getting his license suspended, his tirade a clunky song of longing and dependency. Zomparelli’s book – like his body of work – does the smart and risky thing of trying the same questions on for size over and over again, probing the edges of our hang-ups with agitation and admiration.