A Synonym of Joy: Gay

A Synonym of Joy: Gay

Martha LaBine , Contributing Writer

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay is a collection of essays that make up 14 incitements, 245 pages, and 53 mentions of the word “joy.” Gay’s work is plotful as he tells of dinner parties, sorrow, sports, grief, poetry, community gardens, and other topics often never associated with joy. He tells stories of his past that many would instinctually try to conceal. Gay shows how he lives life as the person he used to be and as the person he is now—all alongside other humans.  

Characterization is attributed to a description of each individual from Gay’s first-person point of view; he embeds his perspective with a truthful plethora of background information and stories. Gay talks about his father saying, “I became thoroughly unenthralled with my old man, annoyed and embarrassed by his arrogance,” later following it up with, “he loved cooking for us; he would’ve loved cooking for you, too.” To tell the truth of the hurtful relationship he had with his father and then incorporate his fathers’ kindness makes Gay a reliable narrator. He took his own point of view, grasping it in the hands of a place of desired understanding, to tell readers who the characters are, what they’ve done, and how they’ve become who they are—all done without bias. 

All of the characters were developed beside at least one other person in each essay—none are only about a single individual—and although joy is the purpose and central idea of the book, collectivity was the star of the show. Gay transitions from literal to lesson, providing different, yet repetitious stories; random people in New York helping Gay find his car rental place? Collectivity; community members coming together to grow an orchard? Collectivity; an entire class of high school students forming a group hug around one of their hurting classmates? Collectivity. Collective connection between humans is how joy is shared—together. 

Further reflective of this togetherness, Gay claims humans to be “citational” creatures of a “sharing” habit–an explanation as to why he included enough footnotes throughout this book that could fill an entire additional book. The focus of each incitement becomes clearer as Gay lets his intrusive thoughts win by including his inner dialogue not where they would’ve made the most sense to be, but where they occurred to him. At times these footnotes were distracting, but Gay brilliantly evokes a nod of the head after veering from the primary topic and returning with circularity at the end of each essay. He declares each essay’s significance to joy by oftentimes being about topics that are anything but joyful. For example, Gay paused a story about his football coach calling him a derogatory term in order to include a five-page footnote to provide clarity about the dynamics of his old football team. Why was this background necessary? Maybe because the team dynamics and the things they did in private didn’t make what his coach said seem so derogatory after all. Gay intentionally uses words like “or,” “and,” “not,” “nor,” and “but” in lengthy repetition to pointedly clarify whatever he’s talking about. On one page he says, “And you listened. And you puzzled. And you laughed. And you wondered. And you found them dear. And…And…” His use of the same words over and over is a big mirror in front of the flaws writers are warned to stay away from, either for being incorrect or for being fearful of being corrected.  

My hope is for all to experience how Gay, in an impeccably unnerving manner, tells of joy as more than the end of each story. His writing made me realize joy is not foundation to build upon, but rather it is the landing, mid-staircase, that people pass over constantly without ever recognizing it. Gay described joy from atop a mountain of considerations including the “good” emotions and the “bad” and everything in between. It does us no good to think of joy in black and white when, really, it is gray; and so, if we come together, collectively connected to joy and those around us at the close of the book, what then?