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:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
Charles R. Larson
A Review of Mary Roach’s “Grunt”
David Yearsley
Stuck in Houston on the Cusp of the Apocalypse
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail