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 recognizable. 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?”
“Thoma, you are one of a kind.”
“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: firstname.lastname@example.org.