Joy of Missing Out
reviewed by Brian Clifton
There are very few negative constructions in Ana Božičević’s latest book of poems, Joy of Missing Out. Instead, Joy of Missing Out weaves together the different and often contradictory details of the speaker’s life to create an oversaturated world—definitions are redefined (but their previous meanings kept intact); lies are told and then revealed to be lies; the speaker changes their mind then changes it back. All of these turns and retracings become almost too much for the speaker so that death (real or symbolic) seems to become a preferred state of (non-)being.
But the book doesn’t start this way. Instead, Božičević introduces Joy of Missing Out with a negation.
Blessing A white stag came up To me and said you’ll Never be an artist, I said thank you, Thank you.
This short poem establishes some of Joy of Missing Out’s themes. “Blessing” uses positive and negative definitions in conjunction to create a complex pattern. The negation (you’ll never be an artist) positively defines the speaker as not the writer (assuming poetry is an art) as well as creates a gap between the now of the book and the future of its speaker. Given that most of Joy of Missing Out is in present tense, this odd negation of the future creates a Keatsian paradox—like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, the speaker is constantly striving toward non-being (in this case not being an artist), but will never attain it insofar as the book is concerned. “Blessing,” or more accurately the white stag’s pronouncement in the poem, is indirect speech and so creates a positive definition that includes a negative one—the stag said this, I did not.
Like this poem, Božičević’s book is full of contradiction and paradox, and in these moments the speaker is simultaneously most enthralled with their world and overwhelmed by it. The thanks the speaker of “Blessing” gives echoes throughout Joy of Missing Out. Their constant obsession with death draws them further away from engaging with the world that has been built in the book. However, this obsession also pulls them further into it. In “Like,” the speaker wonders “when I die/Who will try to figure out/The last thing that/I liked/Anyone?” The juxtaposition between wanting to disengage with the world (to be dead) and to continue to mine the data of one’s internet persona creates a tension in this poem that looms over the entire book. On the one hand, the speaker knows this world is a false construct (“I really believe this world that/I’m building/Is cool,” and “people have amazing online lives”). But on the other, the speaker knows the internet and social media destroys as much as it heals.
This comes to a head in “Secretly.” The poem braids a few narratives of people whose exterior and interior lives are disjointed (a man comparing a woman’s body to another’s (Susan); Susan flirting with a girl while thinking of a man who killed himself for her (or maybe that was just the plot of “The Dead”); a kid putting 7/11 coffee in a Starbucks cup, etc.). Each narrative has its own device to make the disjunction work—social media, “spacing out to swelling bass” while running, the Starbucks cup. But these devices merely treat the symptoms of disjunction.
And that’s something Joy of Missing Out hints at throughout. The only real escape from the oversaturated world (real life, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is death. Death is the pharmakon to the knowledge that we lead multiple lives that might contradict each other, and the existential angst that comes with that self-realization. Ana Božičević takes the concept of the fragmented psyche a step further than her Modernist forebears. Božičević’s speaker (and the characters that pop up throughout Joy of Missing Out) have the self-knowledge and self-awareness of their own fragmentation, and this awareness acts as a destructive salve to their (and by extension, our own) contemporary malaise. They parody themselves and their world with a deadly seriousness—a tonal balance that is stark and warm at the same time.
Joy of Missing Out presents oversaturation and the contradictions it causes as something that creates and relieves angst. Dread, fear, sadness exist as very real things, but they also exist as jokes. Within the book, every situation is simultaneously serious and a parody of itself. This complex relationship between viewer, the thing viewed, and the resonances between them imbues each experience with a depth of meaning as well as washes them together (with all other experiences). Take for instance “LOL.”
LOL Life is lol Love is lol Pain is lol The wind is lol Cats are lol Dreams are lol You are awake When all is lol
If everything is lol, then there’s no real difference between pain and pleasure, wakefulness and sleep, life and death, cats and the wind, dreams and reality (and the list continues). That said, and given lol is something that exists only in a textual realm (i.e. one whose nuance and connotation are constantly left open to interpretation), the contemplated thing is both how these (and indeed all) things are similar/the same and the tiny fluctuations between them, since they are all defined as a term whose meaning is nebulous at best (is the person really laughing out loud, is the laugh derisive, is lol a shorthand for “I agree” or “this pleases me,” is lol genuine or sardonic). The poem, leaving these questions and more unanswered, allows for all possibilities to exist simultaneously.
Ana Božičević seems to have created a world within Joy of Missing Out in which there is an impossibility to choose any one, single step forward. The book holds contradictions simultaneously and equally. And while this creates a pleasure in which one can do all the things they want to do, it also fills every action with anxiety and longing. In the book’s final and titular poem, this comes to the surface. In “Joy of Missing Out,” there is an ambiguity as to whether the person the speaker is addressing is dead or alive.
Somewhere In that moving cloud Is a door I will pass through at death The moment I’m finally fully Uploaded into your memory Don’t groan cos I’m So obsessed with dying
And this ambiguity imbues a finality to both the speaker and the one spoken to. If death in Joy of Missing Out can be seen as the only means by which one can truly miss out on something, the only true way to cease all other possibilities, then this creates a complex relationship between the speaker and spoken to. If the spoken to is dead, then the speaker lives with and without them simultaneously—a pain that constantly throbs even in their happiest moments. If the spoken to is alive, then the speaker might have created a sense of sadness that hadn’t existed before; now there is the knowledge that what exists now won’t always.
Božičević’s speaker might be “so obsessed with dying,” but they also seem to be obsessed with the particulars and possibilities of being alive. The disjunction between these two states do well to create a tension throughout Joy of Missing Out. While death’s shadow looms over everything, it is both a serious consideration and a parody. Death exists as a final inability to chose anything else, the very last notification in one’s newsfeed, and in that way a release from the angst of our own fragmented lives.