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How far can a suicide investigation go? If the suicide is the brilliant and beautiful seventeen-year-old cartoonist Unni Chacko, given to spooky explorations into human frailties and the nature of reality, then the investigation can take you on a metaphysical rollercoaster ride, carrying your verities slowly up the hump, then bringing them screaming down the other side. If the investigator is Ousep Chacko, a failed genius of Malayalam literature, a journalist and an alcoholic whose wife is not completely sane, then the same investigation can take you on a coruscating spin through a gendered world that destroys both men and women. A page-turner with a wide range of concerns structured around a suicide investigation, Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, has established him as a sui generis voice in Indian fiction.
The book begins three years after the suicide, when Ousep Chacko discovers a previously unseen comic his son finished the day he died. In the process of asking a question that he might have been better leaving alone—why did Unni do it?—Ousep meets and talks to several young men, ranging from those who have aced entrance exams to those who have failed them, with the most significant detours involving those who have, like Unni himself, decided to have nothing to do with them. As these young men slowly lay bare the world of Unni’s bizarre and unsettling theories about the nature of reality, the mind, human cruelty and nature itself, we are confronted by a politically unsettling view disguised as a story of teen angst gone out of control. The author puts those who are happy to live within ideology on notice with the idea that a belief that can be shared is a delusion because “the truth is not consistent, it changes from brain to brain”. In fact, the signal contribution of this work is that it flags mindless consensus as a danger to our species, and lives its beliefs by staying clear of political correctness.
The register is caustic and unforgiving, reminiscent of Naipaul. Like Naipaul, Joseph is unafraid to speak in a tone that may be thought of as misanthropic, a diagnosis that is borne out by Ousep Chacko when he says: “It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity.” Despite being a novelist who completely rejects this view in my own practice, I can see that Joseph has followed his guiding principle to produce a deeply sympathetic and intellectually challenging work. We are lucky to have a writer like Joseph, who speaks the bitter truth, who attacks sexism on his own terms despite being attacked for being sexist when his first book came out.
A major weakness of this book is that it is unable to bring its two major themes—the sociological concerns around gender and the philosophical concerns about the nature of reality and perception—into any significant conversation. Another problem is that there are too many clever one-liners in the first hundred pages. It is not the kind of wishy-washy work that requires pointless linguistic muscle-flexing to make its claim. It would have been more consistently weighty without that kind of prose. But that is a minor quibble. This book is absorbing, its canvas is rich, it has a haunting quality. It is, in a word, important.