Book Review: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
by Manu Joseph
The chorus of critical praise that has greeted the appearance of Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is trend-buckingly louder than the acclaim prompted by his wonderful debut novel Serious Men, which won the Hindu Literary Prize in 2010. This is only right: Serious Men was hugely intelligent and biting, but it had the angry incompleteness that hampers so many first novels. All the skills so prominently displayed in that first book – canny descriptions, scalpel-sharp character descriptions, most of all a positively vaudevillian comic sensibility – are evident again in The Illicit Happiness of Other People, but there’s far more ambition, far more rumination, and far more depth. This is no longer the work of a precocious new gate-crasher; this is the first product of a truly gifted new author.
That there should be comic sensibility at all in this book is remarkable, considering the immutable sadness at the heart of the plot. That sadness has a name: Unni Chacko, “handsome in a careless way, passing through life with the lethargy of an artist,” the sweet, artistic oldest son of the Chacko family, the pride of his father Ousep, a sentimental and hard-drinking journalist, and his mother Mariamma, who has long been convinced of Unni’s special ethereality:
Maybe he was just a boy who liked to look at life around him and he invented the mysteries to grant a greater meaning to an idleness that was not tolerated any more in the new nervous city where a boy had so much maths to learn.
The Chackos (there’s also little brother Thoma, ironically the least-realized character in the book) live in Block A, a row of three-story apartment buildings in 1980s Madras, a milieu Joseph captures with an exuberant, Hogarthian exactitude. Early on in the novel, when word spreads around Block A that a local man has suddenly died, the air of quiet disruption is perfectly conveyed:
Several men are standing in the garden and talking among themselves with their arms folded. The signs are unmistakable but the women of Block A decide to ask what has happened anyway. They lean over the balcony railings, hold their chests to keep their saris from falling and whisper their queries. The men walk down the garden towards the common wall as if they are about to urinate, which is not beyond them. They look up and whisper to the women what has happened. And the chatter of women begins, which drives away the sparrows.
As blazingly talented as Serious Men was in so many ways, it could not have done many of the things going on in even so brief a passage as this. The dead man was only forty-two (“It is somehow appropriate that the age of such a fine man must be an even number”), and the shock of the discovery is reflected in the picture of those neighborhood men talking “with their arms folded” – a solemnity neatly deflated by the sly little slander that it was “not beyond” these same men to urinate on the garden wall. This is marvellously controlled prose.
It’s matched by a marvellously controlled (if a trifle pat) plot: years before the novel’s action opens, 17-year-old Unni killed himself, without warning or note. He’d been something of a star at St. Ignatius Boys’ High School, a promising artist whose comics were already notorious, and suddenly he was gone, and the loss knocks the rest of the Chacko family out of their normal orbits. His mother (a challenging part Joseph writes very nearly to perfection) can’t stop thinking about that day, even though thinking brings no understanding:
Some things that even good people did were beyond comprehension. That was the thought in her head when she rose that dawn. but how foolish she was to think that was sorrow. In a few hours she would know what grief really was. Unni would be dead, and the next day she would see him lowered into a hole. And watch without anger as two labourers chatted among themselves while they shoved fresh soil on his coffin. And she would walk back home feeling strangely empty-handed. That is what she remembers the most about the evening – the feeling that her hands were empty.
And Unni’s father can’t bear the not-understanding. When random chance (and India’s notoriously dilatory postal system) delivers into his hands one of Unni’s comics long thought lost, Ousep’s slumbering journalistic instincts are suddenly engaged: he seeks to investigate this son he admits he hardly knew. He interviews teachers, friends, fellow artists (and, in one of the novel’s only unconvincing tangents, a neuro-psychiatrist named – not particularly subtly – Iyengar), constantly resisting his urge to explain what ultimately can’t be explained:
We don’t have to sit here and try to figure out why Unni chose to die. That would be mere speculation. What we must do is talk about him, talk about him without a motive.
Lots of people talk about Unni in the course of this moving, mordantly funny novel – he is the hole at the center of the narrative, the absence that causes all the action we see (Madison Smartt Bell used a very similar structure in his great 1987 novel The Year of Silence, although without daring to graft on quite so much dark humor). And Joseph saves the process from sentimentality by periodically skewing our picture of saintly young Unni. A brief scene at the book’s mid-point, in which Unni leads his fellow St. Ignatius students in a savage assault on a sadistic instructor named Simion Clark, is riveting precisely because it’s offered without apology. We finish the book overwhelmingly sorry for the forces that drove Unni to take his own life – but not entirely certain we would have liked him if he’d lived.
At one point in his investigations, the hapless Ousep is told, “In a farcical world, farce in the true art.” But the courage of The Illicit Happiness of Other People is precisely that its world is not simply farcical. There’s an enormous fund of feeling running through these pages, turning one family’s disastrous response to tragedy into something both personal and universal. The chorus of praise is for once fully justified: this is a book to find and devour.