FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

More Than Turmoil of the Adolescent Mind

by CHARLES R. LARSON

There’s a perverse desire for understanding in Manuel Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, undertaken by one of the most miserable characters of recent fiction.  Joseph’s central character is a bereaved father, named Ousep Chacko, whose son committed suicide three years earlier when he was seventeen.  No parent wants to lose a child under any context, and many hardly survive the loss without inflicting pain on others—the people who ought to be able to help understand the situation.  It is that loss of Unni Chacko that propels Joseph’s brutal but also exquisite narrative, grasping the reader and not releasing him from the story until the final page.

After his son’s death, Ousep drinks himself into despair each night, turns into a slacker on his job as a journalist, ignores or vilifies his wife and surviving son, while he spends most of his time trying to talk to anyone who ever knew the boy, including all of Unni’s close friends.  It’s a daunting undertaking that initially leads Ousep to attempt his own suicide each night.  But he’s so intoxicated that he fails, though he alienates not only his wife and son from him but almost everyone else on the street where they live.  In addition to the drinking, he smokes two cigarettes at a time.  When asked why two, his stock response is always, “Because three is too much.”  If the booze won’t kill him, the nicotine certainly will.

Unni Chacko had his own personality quirks.  He spent most of his time drawing cartoons, many of them with empty balloons over the characters’ heads where the captions would normally appear.  Initially, Ousep attempts to decode these cartoons, but there’s little success following that route in spite of the fact that many of the people in the cartoons are manurecognizable.  There are a number of cartoons of his wife, Mariamma, who would just as soon her husband were dead.  Then there’s Thoma, Ousep’s second son, who suffers from an obvious identify problem because he adored his older brother and would like to understand the reason for Unni’s death as much as his father would.

Unni was totally supportive of his twelve-year-old brother when the two were both alive, always patting him on the back and telling him how unique he was.  On one occasion, Thoma made a confession to his brother:

“In the mornings, soon after I wake up, my penis grows on its own.”

“My God, Thoma, are you serious?”

“I promise.”

“Thoma, you are one of a kind.”

“I am?”

“You are a mutant, Thoma.”

“What do mutants do?”

“A mutant has abilities other humans do not have.  You are a mutant, Thoma.”

It was the happiest moment in Thoma’s life, even though Unni did say, “But it is a talent, Thoma.  It is not a sentiment.”

Though a good bit of the story is comic, there’s a much darker undertone that takes over by the end.  Slowly, Ousep—who was always too busy to give his remarkable son much attention—discovers many things about his son that he never knew, especially an obsession with death, a knack for rectifying human fallibilities and excesses of others, and a close coterie of friends who shared many of his obsessions (some considered paranormal).  It is in these friendships (both with other boys his age but also a younger girl) that Unni walked closer and closer to death, while outwardly manifesting joy and happiness.  It is worth noting that in his “Acknowledgements” at the end of the novel, the author mentions his encounters with neurosurgeons and neuropsychiatrists.

Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People is an intellectual puzzle (slowly unraveled) but also a triumph.  Finishing the novel, I had a distinct regret that I did not read Serious Men, the writer’s highly-awarded first novel, when it was published three years ago.  His second novel puts him in the company of other major novelists from the Indian subcontinent.  One thing is certain:  I will be awaiting Joseph’s next novel.  In the meantime, I’ve got that earlier one to catch up with, and you, dear reader, perhaps have two.

Manu Joseph: The Illicit Happiness of Other People

Norton, 344 pp., $15.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 03, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Obama’s Legacy
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Christopher Brauchli
Parallel Lives: Trump and Temer
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail