MANU Joseph's 2010 first novel, Serious Men, a wickedly funny satire on caste and class at a scientific institute in Mumbai, won the PEN Open Book Award and the Hindu Best Fiction Award, as well as a host of other award nominations. It was compared favourably to Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008.
Now Joseph, a Delhi-based columnist and editor, has produced a more sombre, slow-paced novel that focuses on a father's investigation of his son's suicide. He has thrown in funny observations of contemporary Indian society, as well as some quirky, authentic characters (as he did in Serious Men), but still there is little here to hold a reader's interest through the novel's long middle section.
The Illicit Happiness of Other People chronicles six months in the life of the Chacko family in Madras (now Chennai). The time is 1990, and the family is Keralite Christian. Since Joseph was born in Kerala and grew up in Madras, he is writing what he knows.
The Chackos (Ouseph, Mariamma and their 12-year-old son, Thoma) live in a large apartment complex of middle-class families where everyone knows everyone else's business. This knowledge has distinct disadvantages for the Chackos, who are not ordinary people.
Even before their 17-year-old son, Unni, dove off the roof of their apartment building, the cracks in the Chacko family were showing.
Ouseph, once a promising journalist, comes home drunk every night. Mariamma, who has a degree in economics and frequently refers to the law of diminishing returns, talks to the walls. The family is so poor (by middle-class standards) that the only way Marianna can keep Thoma in a Catholic school is by giving her priest information on other Catholics who attend evangelical meetings.
The characters and the setting, then, are rich with possibility, and the book's opening chapters are absorbing. Three years after the event, Ouseph receives a clue in the mail that once again compels him to take up the investigation of his son's death. He studies the enigmatic cartoons his son composed and seeks to interview Unni's friends.
By this time, Unni's friends have either succeeded in getting into top-notch engineering schools or resigned themselves to failure. Ouseph views these young men as "terrified of everything, of life, of their future, of friends doing better than them, of falling off their cycles, of big trucks and large men and beautiful women ... the only thing that did not scare them was calculus."
But pithy prose and a few witty observations are not enough to move the story along. The format of interviews and exposition soon becomes tiresome. Everyone has a tale to tell, but no one has an answer to why an apparently happy boy would commit suicide. How long can readers sustain interest in a character they have never met?
Fortunately, Ouseph's lengthy interviews are interspersed with passages from the point of view of Thoma, a very engaging character. We first meet him in class where he has a tendency to wool-gather, staring "at the open textbook for hours ... distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted forever. His nails scratch the page to straighten its tired limbs."
In the end, it is Thoma who stumbles on the reason for Unni's suicide. It is all much simpler than Ouseph's circuitous investigation would indicate, and entirely plausible.
If only Joseph had cut 50 or so pages in the middle section, readers might come away satisfied, instead of feeling they have been led up a very long garden path.
Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer. Her second book, a novel, The Only Man in the World, was published this fall.