Book review

The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012) is a Tragicomedy Illuminated by Subtle Psychosocial Analysis

*Illicit* is a satirical social commentary, a tragicomedy of self-sacrifice, crime, transcendence, and tragic redemption set against the insistent grime of a lower-middle-class family stranded between failure and social injustice on the one hand – and resilience and love on the other.

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Illicit (2012) is Manu Joseph’s second novel, his first that I’ve read. Illicit is set in 1990s Chennai: in a dysfunctional family, in a dysfunctional society. The novel is structured as a nested series of mysteries. Its central mystery: Why did gifted 17-year-old cartoonist Unni Chacko commit suicide? He did this out of the blue, three years ago: following which his father, Ousep, conducted a thorough investigation. Now, Ousep has renewed his investigation: why? As Illicit unfolds, we become involved in mysteries around matriarch Mariamma, surviving younger son Thoma, and a web of secondary characters, from each of whom Ousep must extract his/her puzzle-piece. Through these mysteries, Illicit cuts a cross-section through a society mired in mental disorder, streamlined ambition, sexual hypocrisy, and misogyny. This cross-sectioning occurs via Ousep’s winding, far-flung psychological autopsy of Unni. Unni was intelligent, loving, handsome, grounded, philosophically-minded, and preternaturally talented – yet destined for tragedy. Will the solving of this mystery unite the remnants of the family, or drive them irredeemably apart?

Back in secondary school, I read Don Quixote (1605, 1615). The ‘first modern novel’ is discursive, chockful of stories. In one story, which someone tells in a tavern: A man has a beautiful, chaste wife. But he reflects: ‘My wife’s never been tempted to cheat on me. How can I know whether she’s really chaste, until she’s been really tempted?’ So he goes ahead and exposes his wife to a series of temptations. Finally, she succumbs. She cheats on him. The man thinks: ‘Aha! Now I’ve proven that my wife is really unfaithful.’ He kills her.

This story has stuck with me. A splinter in my mind. The enterprise of discovering who somebody ‘really’ is – to discover the essence of humanity – strikes me as dunderheaded. A human is not an essential oil. Do we, as individuals, have personality traits, abilities, and temperaments that emerge early, express themselves across situations, and persist (or even intensify) over the lifespan? Yes. But personality is not a hardwired programme executing rigidly defined functions. Personality is the framework within which the individual adapts to the environment. If they show anything, lab experiments like the Stanford prison simulations, and real-life experiments like Nazi Germany – show that, whatever one’s personality, circumstances can elicit from many of us morally dubious actions. Do these actions capture who humans really are? Again, this question is nonsensical. Humans have the ability to respond to situations flexibly. And some of those responses constitute dubious acts. Illicit’s central question is: How do we morally grapple with the human capability for dubious actions?

Through his teens, Illicit’s Unni is impelled to discover who people really are. Exposed early and chronically to misery at home – poverty, an alcoholic father, social ostracism, a mentally disturbed mother – Unni becomes seduced by the idea that, at the dawn of life, Evil triumphed over Good, and now devotes its energies to persuading us that Evil is Good. Unni is an indifferent student; but, as a talented cartoonist with a clear head and a good temperament, he must’ve known he had fair prospects. But he becomes embroiled in an escalating series of explorations into the crevices of the human mind. He puts his peers in extraordinary situations, and goads them to see how far they will go in hurting others, when they can do so with impunity: Unni conducts his own Stanford prison experiments. He also explores alternative epistemologies via psychologically disturbed individuals – another high-risk pastime. The conclusions Unni – after all a teenager, seduced by disturbing metaphysics of his own concoction – draws from his intrepid explorations prepare him to play the ultimate game. To put, to the test, himself. It is this test that yields, predictably, tragic results.

A masterfully-structured novel, Illicit is predictable only in hindsight. Before the reader, the story unfolds in careful layers: like a Russian doll crossbred with a slinkie. Across the novel’s landscape we encounter schizophrenia; and the misogyny and sexual repression that impel men to commit sexual assault, and women to stay silent. Two little-known psychological disorders anchor the mysteries. Two other cases of apparently disordered behaviour prove rational in origin. Illicit can be plausibly accused of romanticising mental disorder – toying at length with the idea that psychopathology opens the door to higher insights. Still, as plot-points, the various mental disorders serve Illicit well. Confessions from every single character must converge to solve Illicit’s largest mystery. Introduced on the opening page, this mystery is finally, and satisfactorily, solved on the last. Seasoned mystery readers will be able to unravel the mystery alongside the novel’s reader-stand-in / dysfunctional patriarch, Ousep. Novice mystery readers, like me, will find much to admire along the way, and get all the answers too.

Illicit’s narrative is compelling; its writing adequate. The novel’s first 100-odd pages spew generalisations that, being either untrue or unfalsifiable, are offputting. “The young are called rebellious, but they are only an army of cowards.” “Unni loved his mother for exaggerated reasons – the only way sons can love their mothers.” “That any two men in the world have real affection between them is itself a myth, created chiefly by the two men.” “Ambition is the capacity for unhappiness.” (If “happiness” is intended here in the Nietzschean sense — as synonymous with pleasure and comfort, and as antagonistic to greatness — then this makes some sense. But this Nietzschean sense of “happiness” is itself problematic, confounding as it does Nietzsche’s own claim that humanity’s acme lies in the greatness towards which “ambition” drives some humans.) But these generalisations of Joseph’s are peripheral to the action; the reader overlooks them. Illicit soon moults this penchant for gratuitious, dubious generalisations to focus on slow-building insights about its characters.

Illicit is the story of a teenager on an impossible quest: to find, in a world of lies, both truth and sanity. But the novel across which the half-mad, half-prophet Unni walks is not a tragedy: it’s a tragicomedy. Nor is it pessimistic: its subtle psychosocial analysis of mental disorder and socioeconomic suffering constitutes a call to action. And, for all its flirtations with the occult, with a range of bizarre disorders, and with philosophical acid-trips – Illicit stays firmly grounded in the social-psychological reality of a quest for meaning in the ultimate meaning-defying act: a loved one’s suicide. Illicit is a story of self-sacrifice, crime, transcendence, and tragic redemption set against the insistent grime of a lower-middle-class family stranded between failure and social injustice on the one hand – and resilience and love on the other.


Buy Illicit Happiness on Amazon India. Please consider buying a Kindle copy, or an audiobook, to save paper.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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