Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 48, December 2014)

Michael Jeffrey Lee
Some Bad Feelings

It has always seemed to me that I exist in a fairly depraved culture, and if I ever learned that my work was somehow enabling people to persist in their cherished delusions—about empire, about language, about their own innocence—I would feel very bad indeed. I feel similarly bad on the days when I realize that I’m being lazy and fearful with my writing, that instead of leading me toward a place of little safety it is actually allowing me the same dumb comforts. My wish to not be part of the problem pushes me to write in ways that do not allow the reader, or the writer, or the narrator, much comfort; writing an unstable story is, for me, an attempt to keep it from being co-opted by the culture at large. This instability might show up in the form, it also might show up in the narrative voice—I’m frequently letting the earnestly insane narrate, or I’ll depict narrators wrestling with their narratives in real time. But this impulse (I hope a moral, but not moralistic one) sometimes leads me down the path of pedantry, and the work becomes bombastic and gassy, the stories read like inept interrogations. And to battle this tendency, I’ll do everything I can to mask the message, or I’ll make the messenger an unpleasant clown. Much better, I think, are my stories that manage to stick in their little shivs without attracting much attention, when the preaching is done on the sly. But it is of course impossible to determine the interpretive life of any piece of writing: my loving father, a brilliant but politically backward man, who’s “they’ll greet us as liberators” worldview I have attempted to excoriate in every single word of fiction that I have ever written, can read a piece of mine and be simply puzzled. The politics pass right over his head, as does the greater “meaning.” I don’t know what to think about that. Maybe my pursuit of instability and obscurity has all-but ensured that my satirical targets will continue to get off scot-free, or maybe my propaganda’s just shoddy, I don’t know. At any rate, I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my writing, by my desire to write. Sometimes it seems like such an unimaginative, unoriginal, and obvious a thing for a relatively young, white, aimless and privileged young man to be doing, especially in a culture where everyone has been sold the idea that they possess immense creative talent, and that they should put that talent to good use by creating as much content as possible—for themselves, for their friends, for gigantic corporations. My discomfort is evident in everything I write; it makes me prone to self-sabotage. By design, all my revelations are flimsy, all my epiphanies are phony. There are days when I am certain that the most subversive thing I could possibly do is to quit scribbling, stop sharing and foisting. But that is only some days.