Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Review: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
W.W. NORTON & COMPANY, INC. – @norton_fiction
AUTHOR: Manu Joseph
COVER: Jarrod Taylor
ISBN: 978-0-393-33862-1; paperback (January 2013)
350pp, B&W, $15.95 U.S.
For his first novel, Serious Men (2010), Manu Joseph won The Hindu Literary Prize 2010 and the PEN Open Book Award. Joseph, a New Delhi-based newspaper columnist and editor, has written a second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People: A Novel, which was recently published. This fictional work follows the efforts of a father to unravel the mystery behind his teenaged son’s suicide.
The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in the late 1980s in Madras. Madras is the former name of Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, India. The meat-eating, Catholic, Chackos’ family lives in a Madras housing community, where everyone is a gossip. And the Chackos are the talk of the town. Three years before the story begins, 17-year-old Unni Chacko committed suicide by jumping to his death.
Unni’s father, Ousep Chacko, was a once-promising writer. Now, he is a washed-out journalist who drinks too much at night. When he returns from a night of drinking, he makes a horrid scene for the whole block to hear; then, he stages his own nightly suicide attempt. Mother Mariamma had been an intellect and budding athlete; now she fantasizes about her husband’s death and loudly talks to herself about old wounds and hurts. Twelve-year-old brother, Thoma, is caught between his parent’s stormy lives. He wears his brother’s old clothes, and he fantasizes about a 16-year-old neighbor, Mythili Balasubramanium, a beautiful teen girl who was close to Unni, but ignores Thoma.
Unni had been a young cartoonist and creator of hand-made comic books. One day, the post office delivers a comic book drawn by Unni that had been lost in the mail since his death. Shocked out of his drunken stupor, Ousep picks up the investigation into his son’s suicide that he’d dropped not long after Unni’s death. Three years later, however, Unni’s old friends are no longer interested in talking about their friend’s death. Ousep won’t take “No!” for an answer, and he even discovers more people who were friends with or acquaintances of his son. Now, a father must face the troubling truths, vague answers, and haunting memories if he is to discover why his son killed himself. The big questions: Can he really find an answer, and will he be satisfied with it?
The Illicit Happiness of Other People is two things. Half of it is an observational novel, with Joseph’s rich prose composing a gigantic canvas, mostly about the Madras community. On the edges of this prose painting are depictions, here and there, of places outside Madras. Joseph studies class and society, and surveys how people socialize inside and outside the family. In this first half of The Illicit Happiness of Other People, Joseph weaves brilliant one-liners seamlessly into this colorful portrait of relationships and divides. Sometimes, this is a sharp satire, but it won’t poke away the viewer.
The other half (or so) of the novel is something akin to detective fiction or a mystery novel. Once Ousep meets Balki, an acquaintance of Unni’s, the tone of the novel changes. There are rumors and small amounts of local lore and legend around Balki, but this meeting really pushes forwards Ousep’s investigation, which often seems to languish during the first half of the book. The meeting of Ousep and Balki is The Illicit Happiness of Other People’s Chinatown moment, and it saves the narrative from drowning in sameness.
The novel that was philosophical, in a satirical way, becomes philosophical, introspective, and investigative. The author digs deeper into issues of family strife, troubled personal histories, and mental illness. The novel has some pointed things to say about the way teenagers tackle the perplexing nature of existence, or at least, that is the way I see it.
I read somewhere (maybe in the novel’s press packet) that Manu Joseph is a novelist who wants to be a cartoonist. After Ousep meets Balki, this novel’s prose started activating a torrent of visuals in my mind and imagination. In my mind, Joseph’s descriptions of Unni’s comics became comics I could read and scrutinize.
For half this novel, the words were clever, but the narrative went nowhere. To me, that is what keeps this from being a really great novel, but The Illicit Happiness of Other People: A Novel is still a very good novel.
Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux