A Review of Inciting Joy by Ross Gay

A Review of Inciting Joy by Ross Gay

Dylan Larson, Contributing Writer

Inciting Joy is a collection of essays that explore the complexities of joy’s many conceptions. Gay tackles each subject in his essays—ranging from the mundanity of playing basketball to life altering events like the loss of loved ones—with the intimacy of memoir and the language of a poet to stunning results.  

The book begins with an essay that reads as the collection’s thesis. An abstract discussion about joy is developed into an imagined scenario in which people bring their personified sorrow to a party; through the collective sharing of sorrow, the party ignites into a celebratory jamboree. Essays about sorrow may not be obvious choices in the pursuit of writing about joy, but Gay digs beneath the surface to excavate memories that subtly wring joy out of a broader range of human experience. 

Gay writes with a maximalist approach. Inciting Joy is by no means difficult in terms of content but is not a casual read. Gay writes in a comma-filled rambling prose and often indulges in lengthy asides—some of which completely derail sentences. Gay is not afraid to indulge in detail and sidetrack. This is on top of the regular footnotes, which may be brief comments to add detail or can turn into side stories that take up three pages at their longest.  

While Gay’s dense writing style may be overwhelming at times, it doesn’t hinder his affinity for figurative language. Each essay is doused with simile and wit, adding a level of enjoyment for the language itself. When describing the goldfinch, he compares them to American baseball players—both equally crazy for sunflower seeds—and likens their impassioned pecking to the sound of an Elvin Jones drum solo.  

One of the primary takeaways from the collection is its reflections on grief. In the penultimate essay, Gay discusses the benefits of collective grief—not just as individuals but institutions. Gay specifies that this differs from performative grief, which is commonplace today in many forms. As Gay notes in a previous essay, in the current economic system of exploitation in which we live, “nearly everything we do… causes harm to what and who we cannot conceive.” How do we find joy and peace in these ruins? The answer, in its briefest simplicity, is “holding each other through the sorrow.” 

Through the lens of Gay’s life, readers are presented with unabashed truth and honesty. Gay lays his life out with striking vulnerability, speaking openly about some of his lowest moments. As he says, “I have become to you an open book.” To read Inciting Joy is to enter Gay’s mind, understand him, and through our commonalities, begin to understand ourselves and those around us to a greater degree.