More Than Turmoil of the Adolescent Mind


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.

December 01, 2015
John Wight
From Iraq to Syria: Repeating a Debacle
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: the Left Takes Charge
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Revenge? The Fight for the Border
Sami Al-Arian
My Ordeal: One of America’s Many Political Trials Since 9/11
Steffen Böhm
Why the Paris Climate Talks Will Fail, Just Like All the Others
Gilbert Mercier
Will Turkey Be Kicked Out of NATO?
Bilal El-Amine
The Hard Truth About Daesh and How to Fight It
Pete Dolack
Solidarity Instead of Hierarchy as “Common Sense”
Dan Glazebrook
Rhodes Must Fall: Decolonizing Education
Colin Todhunter
Big Oil, TTIP and the Scramble for Europe
Eric Draitser
Terror in Mali: An Attack on China and Russia?
Linn Washington Jr.
Torture and Other Abuses Make Turkey as American as Apple Pie
Randy Shaw
Krugman is Wrong on Gentrification
Raouf Halaby
Time to Speak Out Against Censorship
Jesse Jackson
It’s Time for Answers in Laquan McDonald Case
Patrick Walker
Wake Up Zombie, Kick Up a Big Stink!
November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism