The People Who Report More Stress


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Pub Date 04 Apr 2023 | Archive Date 28 Mar 2023

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"A searing collection about gentrification, racism, and sexuality. [...] Varela provides invaluable insight on the ways stress impacts the characters’ lives, and how they persevere. Readers will be floored."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"Alejandro Varela is one of my favorite short story writers . . . An iconoclast of tenderness, a compass in the storm this life always is." —Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

"The People Who Report More Stress dissects the minutiae of relationships to self, city, space, and sensibility so we don’t numbly succumb to the 'structured order of things.'"—Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of The Freezer Door

The People Who Report More Stress is a collection of interconnected stories brimming with the anxieties of people who retreat into themselves while living in the margins, acutely aware of the stresses that modern life takes upon the body and the body politic.

In “Midtown-West Side Story,” Álvaro, a restaurant worker struggling to support his family, begins selling high-end designer clothes to his co-workers, friends, neighbors, and the restaurant’s regulars in preparation for a move to the suburbs.

“The Man in 512” tracks Manny, the childcare worker for a Swedish family, as he observes the comings and goings of an affluent co-op building, all the while teaching the children Spanish through Selena’s music catalog.

“Comrades” follows a queer man with radical politics who just ended a long-term relationship and is now on the hunt for a life partner. With little tolerance for political moderates, his series of speed dates devolve into awkward confrontations that leave him wondering if his approach is the correct one.

A collection of humorous, sexy, and highly neurotic tales about parenting, long-term relationships, systemic and interpersonal racism, and class conflict from the author of The Town of Babylon, The People Who Report More Stress deftly and poignantly expresses the frustration of knowing the problems and solutions to our society’s inequities but being unable to do anything about them.
"A searing collection about gentrification, racism, and sexuality. [...] Varela provides invaluable insight on the ways stress impacts the characters’ lives, and how they persevere. Readers will be...

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'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 grounds 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.

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Thank you, Astra Publishing House, Astra House, for allowing me to read The People Who Report More Stress early!

Alejandro Varela has such a compelling voice and writing style.. I loved his debut The Town of Babylon and this story collection was as great, if not better.

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Thank you to Astra House and NetGalley for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Before I begin, I have to admit that I have not yet read Alejandro Varela’s debut, but after this, I will surely be getting to it soon!

The People Who Report More Stress contains thirteen interconnected short stories—most of which center around an interracial gay couple. Again, I have never read any of Varela’s writing, but by the end of the first few stories, I was sure this would be something special.

Yes, these stories are routinely distressing—yet there is also so much love and humor present that I found myself wanting to stay within some of them long after they ended.

Varela writes about many issues such as race as it relates to housing, politics, immigration, and academia—but also about family, relationships, and sexuality. Several of these ideas are present in every story, but they never manage to feel tedious. The prose is remarkable, and so is the way Varela moves through characters and time to craft a collection that ultimately feels cohesive and impactful.

I look forward to revisiting this upon release and I hope to get to The Town of Babylon sometime next year!

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The People Who Report More Stress is a hilarious collection of stories tackling a wide range of issues from parenting to racism. Both politically relevant and entertaining, Alejandro Varela has struck the right balance to create the perfect novel for our current moment.

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This short story collection is genius. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. Whether it's a story about playground politics, online dating, navigating long-term relationships and heteronormative standards for gay couples with children, a tutor of a rich Swedish family, geopolitics at the UN, interracial dating, Alejandro's writing makes me giggle bc it's so clever. And I had to look up several words that I didn't know--love it! 

“It was a sort of triplication of hopelessness.”

“The ignominy, however, of being denied a ride home in full light—on a day when standing upright bordered on hardship—was in a category all its own.”

Alejandro writes about the WTF microlevel moments around race/class/gender/sexuality with macrolevel impacts in ways that remind me of Rumaan Alam in Leave the World Behind. 

“It rankles me dearly to meet so many white people who use their inheritances and no-interest loans to buy homes in previously Black and brown neighborhoods, while (probably) secretly questioning—or allowing their parents and drunk uncles to—the spending habits of poor Black and brown people, as if slavery and Jim Crow and wage-law chicanery and redlining aren’t still lurking, as if poor white people don’t also buy wide-screen TV sets and phones and sneakers.”

This was such an enjoyable book and I loved how the author called out so many of these issues. It made me feel vindicated and seen bc I am constantly thinking and experiencing some of these kinds of moments myself. I will definitely be recommending it on my social media page, and thank you for the eARC!

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I am a huge fan of Alejandro! These stories took my breath away! These stories spoke to me in so many ways!

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Alejandro Varela is a gifted short story writer. Having enjoyed his novel Town of Babylon, I was excited to read his new collection, and I enjoyed it even more than his novel. In a series of interconnected short stories set in NYC, Varela explores racism, sexuality, and gentrification. I love how he uses the lens of public health in different ways throughout his fiction, and the tension that builds around knowing what needs changing without the ability to change it. I particularly enjoyed the stories that involved parenting, often bringing the direct experience of everyday racism for the main characters into these stories. Valera’s writing captures the impact on these characters of living with the stress of American social inequities while still maintaining some hope for future reparations and change. These stories lingered in my mind. It is a collection where each story has the potential to be a favorite. Thank you to NetGalley and Astra Publishing House for the early copy.

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This is a strong and often thought-provoking novel about individuals' relationships with family and friends, the spaces they occupy, and society more broadly -- and the way they all interact. In a series of connected stories, the author offers impactful explorations of the anxieties that individuals' face finding their place within these relationships, workplaces, and families. This is another engaging (and often funny) book from this author.

Highly recommended!

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for sending this ARC in exchange for an honest review of the book.

I am a public health scholar and adored Varela’s debut novel, The Town of Babylon. Ultimately, I think Varela’s writing style lends itself better to the novel, where the over societal linkages are more sparsely incorporated—but I liked some of the liberties he was able to take with form in this collection of short stories.

If you are a queer Latino man in your mid 30’s to late 40’s who likes cocktails, I highly recommend this book to you. I also will recommend it to everyone, but the aforementioned group especially.

My rambling thoughts on each story, copied and pasted from my notes app with individual ratings:

An Other Man
What I admire so much about Alejandro Varela is that he knows how to capture and bottle a relatable feeling/experience, even if you’re not a gay man looking to open your relationship for the first time (I’m not). “Sidestepping white men proves an onerous task on a distance-based application in a hyper-gentrified neighborhood.” That’s a bar for the ages. One of the better uses of second person that I’ve read.
4.25 stars

She and Her Kid and Me and Mine
This one didn’t sit as well with me—maybe because I’m not a parent—but the connections between to social issue (gentrification) and the actual interpersonal conversation felt a little forced.
3 stars

Midtown-West Side Story
What is a well-appointed burger?
I always thought manila envelope was spelled like the capital of the Philippines.
I found this hard to follow—more because of all there names than the Spanish (not at all mad to take the time to think about the Spanish even though I don’t speak). I think I got the comparison of the two stories of financial insecurity and the feeling of being robbed, but we were sort of just told how to interpret and feel about it.
3 stars

All the Bullets Were Made in My Country
I think when he says yoke he meant yolk but don’t want to mince words at that exact part of the story.
I think I got the part where the title was dropped, and the end resonated too, but I had trouble again following the trajectories of all the grandparents because the plot lines cut quite starkly for a short story.
2.5 stars

Carlitos in Charge
I’m getting a PhD and I had to look up the word syndicated so I had to suspend disbelief to buy into the interaction that a sixth grader would clap back with that word. The rap sheet of things the US ignores despite data reads really well; that’s some of my favorite form of Varela’s, just really insightful public health personalized takes made digestible and powerful.
The challenging vocab in this delayed my understanding. Why do we have supplant, fetor, and betwixt in the span of two sentences?
Shouts out the Filipino envoy there’s a lot of subtext in that interaction.
I found this story to be pretty effective and relate huge societal decisions with interpersonal tensions really well.
4.25 stars

The Great Potato Famine
I liked this one.
4 stars

The Man in 512
I think this story has the most effective management of a larger cast of characters and the strongest interiority from a main character. I found this to be really endearing!
4.25 stars

A Litany of My Fears
I have a lot of the same fears, haha.
Dr. Varela how you know so much about the Philippines?
Okay, I think I get the point of this story after sitting with it a bit? That (other factors considered) the peril of a white woman will be reacted to more strongly than the peril of a Latino man? This is one I feel the need to read back because there are relationships that I didn’t get the point of.
3.5 stars

The Six Times of Alan (and the first two hundred years of Eduardo)
Reading this book is like psychological 4D internalized racism chess. It totally resonates how the main character is situating micro aggressions against his kid in the larger space of interpersonal racism, but then inversely his actions from his therapist, who is arguably trying to build mutual understanding, sit way worse because of the racial gradient of power. The reckoning of, if someone white can really support you in the way you need partner-wise, is one I know a lot of BIPOC have grappled with. I think this was a brief and artful dealing of how that can look (and how a partner can take notes and be supportive—whether that would be enough probably goes beyond the scope of the story). Ultimately the therapist really shows a failing of understanding experiences of racial discrimination. Thanks Dr. Varela for the Filipino queer mention i know that’s riiight. George has a W take on Uber from a race standpoint without even intending to which helps me characterize him immediately. Queen Irene promotes harm reduction! The main character himself tried to understand the experiences of Black children by learning from perceptions in research articles and that does validate a lot of his fears. It’s interesting how he weighs this compared to his own experiences with his therapist. “Adapt, or die out,” is a line that will make me ill forever. That’s the violence.
4.5 stars

I felt nicely about this story.
4.25 stars

This kinda feels like a rebound thing?
Aside from the jokes, this translated well. Toward the end, some of the conversations got a little too tirade-y and written out for me to believe interpersonally, but this is one that I’ll remember.
4.75 stars

Grand Openings
I liked the structure of this until the end.
3.25 stars

The People Who Report More Stress
Great real-life interpretation of public health messaging. Physicians and health communication specialists should think about this one.
4 stars

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Loved this short story collection!!! I really like Alejandro Varela’s style of writing!! Great to read for any fans of The Town of Babylon!

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In The People Who Report More Stress, we get 13 short stories that are somewhat connected to each other. Alejandro Varela does a great job creating stories that discuss serious topics (sexuality, gender, relationships, world politics, etc) but in an accessible way. I enjoyed Varela's writing style, but found that the order of the stories perhaps didn't make a ton of sense to me. We mostly follow an interracial gay couple (Gus and Eduardo). We start with them and we end with them, but in the middle, the timeline gets fuzzy - and maybe that was the point! But, I found myself trying to follow Gus and Eduardo's story in a coherent way and didn't exactly get that. Like I said though, I really enjoyed the writing style. I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

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There was something so familiar about each of the short stories written in this collection, and I attribute that to the author’s writing style: it is distinct and engaging and I was easily enraptured in each story. There is a subtle tension between the narrator and each of the characters they interact with I really enjoyed and so much of the subject matter was meaningfully discussed.

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I really enjoyed this collection of short stories - most of which are centred around a queer couple living in New York. The writing was precise and effective, and seeing these characters in different times and circumstances was quite a refreshing take on the now-typical sophomore short story collection.
The majority of these stories focus on discussions of particular social or political issues, and I wish it had gone a bit deeper with some of them - we have lots of characters in conversation discussing these things but not much about how these issues actually affect them. That being said, race is a major tentpole in these stories and is discussed and portrayed with so much nuance and detail, especially as it relates to our protagonists.
The stories that stood out to me are the ones that played with form - there's one written in second person, one following alternate timelines of these characters' lives, and my personal favourite: one that follows a string of bad dates, written as a call-and-response between the candidates' dating profiles and the conversations they have in person. I wish there were more of these, especially since they're mostly towards the end, leaving the bulk of the book a blur of similar narratives.
I'm very excited to see what Varela writes next, especially when not restrained by the short story format.

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