30 September, 2022

Aggressive Cheer

"Have a spectacular day."

"Damned it if I'm not just overjoyed to be here."

"These are the best grits I've had in my life. In my life!"

These are quotes from people who've presented examples of a phenomenon I call aggressive cheer. I could offer you more of them, but you get the general idea. Each of the sentences above belong to a species of overcompensation that flourishes in prison, an ironic use of joviality, intended as a funny counterpoint to the undercurrent of misery in this place. They come not with a smile but with a grimace. The guys who deploy this kind of forced, faux bonhomie have usually done a lot of time. Over the decades of their imprisonment, they seem to have moved past active self-pity, into a realm of begrudging acceptance of their situation. Still, they know prison sucks, and so they bare their teeth, crinkle up their eyes, and hiss "Oh, peachy!" in response to your question of how they're doing today. At least it sounds less disagreeable than the truth would. It took me a while to understand this. A born literalist, my first encounters with aggressive cheer found me oblivious to the underlying sentiment. I thought these guys were actually stoked about greeting the day. What I learned over the years of being locked up was that, in fact, aggressive cheer is just another in the long list of coping mechanisms brought to bear against prison's daily grind, another technique for fending off despair. There's a version of aggressive cheer that I consider aspirational. Those who display it are members of the fake-it-till-you-make-it school of personal development. They want desperately for it to be true, but as they force a grin and an overly nice sentiment, the effect ultimately rings hollow. This is especially heard from people who wrap themselves up tight in a security blanket of religion.
I used to ask a neighbor, "How are you this morning?" Every time, without fail, he replied, "Blessed by the best, Mister Case, as we all are." I soon stopped asking. He wasn't giving me a response; he was reciting a slogan. Since he never thought to ask my religion (or my perspective on it) before telling me how I should feel, his answer also seemed a little bossy and self-absorbed. A more polite, cognizant response would've been, simply, "I feel blessed." Not even that would've been true, however, because this is a man I never hear speaking unless he's complaining. A more honest answer might've been, "Well, Mister Case, I feel like shit, but I'm making do and keeping my trust in God that things will turn around." Those are good words I could appreciate.

Many perpetrators of aggressive cheer, such as the guy I just described, probably don't even realize what they're doing when do it. This is why I now satisfy myself with telling him, "Good morning" simply, and with sincerity when we cross paths en route to breakfast.

Years ago, an exaggerated "Good morning!" held a certain appeal for my cynical temperament. It afforded me the appearance of not being miserable, which seemed like half the battle won. What I realized, though, was that the underlying problem remained. I eventually found within myself the means to meet my day-to-day with equanimity. It just took a while.
Today, when I ask people how they're doing, it's not perfunctory; I actually want to know. I'm nothing if not a sincere person. If someone replies by spreading a hard grin across their face and spitting empty words of happiness, I understand where they're coming from; but it's empathy without endorsement. I can no longer relate.

22 September, 2022

Five Books I Read This Summer

This summer was good to me; I didn't pass out from the heat, I wasn't bitten by any bugs, and I only got sunburned once. I even carved out a little time, between work and sleep, to read. What's more, the things that I read were of a particularly good variety.

When I learned from The New York Review of Books a few months ago that David Shields had published a new book, The Very Last Interview, reading it right away felt like an imperative. Twelve years ago, his much-praised literary "manifesto," Reality Hunger positively blew my mind. Critics said that The Very Last Interview was the best thing he'd written since. I haven't read anything Shields wrote in those intervening years, but I suspect they could be right.

Similarly to how Shields "wrote" the chapters of Reality Hunger by collaging snippets of other authors' work (flying in the face of what I once considered originality), he compiled The Very Last Interview from questions other have asked him during what seem to be downright torturous interviews. The result is a fascinating, surprising work that examines the nature of notoriety, the responsibility of the interviewer, and the narrow power of inquiry.

Albeit with less fervor, I also wanted for quite some time to read Toni Morrison, especially her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, about young Pecola Breedlove, a black girl who wishes more than anything else to have blue eyes. From its first scintillating pages, I understood myself to be setting off into a dangerous work of literature. No wonder Morrison caught the world's attention! She renders with uncomfortable closeness the details of poverty and decrepitude in which, in mid-century Ohio, several poor black families live. Where I expected a somewhat domestic book told straight, Morrison tipped me right over with her gorgeous, fluid prose. I could scarcely set The Bluest Eye down. When I did, feeling fairly bruised and battered by its unsettlingly beautiful ending, there was little in the way of cozy resolution on offer. All I can see fit to say is that Morrison clearly earned every bit of the praise she received.

Turning from the past to the future, I reached next for another 2022 release, a wonderful, unexpected gift from Emily C., who evidently pays keen attention to the titles of books that I mention in passing. In the hands of a less skillful author, the title of Olga Ravn's The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Cenury (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken) might be a giveaway of the big story within this small book. Not in Ravn's. What we have here is an expertly written, quietly experimental work of what I'll call literary sci-fi.

In a nonchronological series of numbered reports, the employees of an unnamed organization take turns detailing their interactions with several alien objects aboard the spaceship on which they work. The reports are anonymous. Some are as short as a single sentence. They document, in chilly, disconnected corporate fashion, degrading morale among the ship's human and synthetic workers, until the situation ultimately moves past the point of no return. Ravn's The Employees is space-faring speculative fiction not quite like any other I've read, and I want more.

It's a shame that The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by British fantasist Angela Carter, didn't feel quite so unique. Until her death in 1992, Carter wrote a breed of high Gothic fiction that lingered in murky dungeons and in the high, crumbling towers of damp castles. What she seems to have been known for was more her substance than her style. It was arguably Carter who first returned fairy tales to their dark roots, retelling the familiar stories of Snow White and Red Riding Hood with unsettling, sometimes nightmarish twists. The Bloody Chamber, from 1979, offers versions of "Bluebeard," "Puss-in-Boots," and multiple different takes on "Beauty and the Beast," each of which infuses the dry old stories with blood and other bodily fluids, and in doing so renders them sometimes all but unrecognizable.

It's Carter's style that I had a hard time with. The first paragraph of one story here, "The Erl-King," contains this sentence about late October, which typifies how she wrote: "There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approach of winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezes it tight." Such ornate verbiage, like the impassable brambles surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle, impeded my getting into these stories. I read them all, though, and found plenty to admire in this writer's ideas and her willingness to do what poets have always done: make it new.

After reading a couple of Franny Choi's pieces in The New Yorker and Poetry, I sought out her debut collection, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, with only the vaguest idea of what lay in store. The book contains one of those poems, "To the Man Who Shouted 'I Like Pork Fried Rice' at Me on the Street," Choi's response to a man who apparently accosted her on the street with a racist, sexually provocative remark. It's a strong poem, a thoughtful, witty rejoinder to a particularly odious brand of cretinism. I wish the rest of the collection were half as provocative. A dismaying percentage of Floating, Brilliant, Gone is given over to work that feels like juvenilia stuff that I imagine a younger Choi toiling over in great earnest after completing her geometry homework; stuff quite similar to what I committed to a purple crushed-velvet notebook that, mercifully, posterity didn't deem fit to preserve. Choi clearly has talent and a level of introspection that can serve a poet well, and I hope that this first published collection served her well on her journey to grow as an artist and human being.