King of Joy, Richard Chiem (Soft Skull 978-1593763091, $15.95, 208pp, tp) March 2019.
I’m always on the lookout for authors who play on the fringes of the genre. When I saw the cover of Richard Chiem’s debut novel, King of Joy – the pixelated face of a woman, her face frozen in a dull sort of ecstasy – I thought I was onto something. The back cover copy excited me further, the suggestion of the supernatural, with the main character displaying a “unique coping mechanism” to imagine herself out of any situation. King of Joy, though, isn’t speculative fiction; it’s not set in the future, or a post-apocalyptic dystopia, or a secondary world with dragons and wizards. Instead, it’s pulpy noir, part Tarantino, part Thelma and Louise, featuring pornographers, pretentious playwrights, a pit bull named Marco, and a pod of homicidal hippopotami.
Following the death of her husband, Corvus – she of the overactive imagination – heads to California to work for a sleazy pornographer named Tim (the blurb describes him as unconventional; that’s an understatement). Corvus spends a year with Tim, taking a large quantity of drugs and featuring in his films. The only thing that keeps her even remotely sane is her friendship with one of the other actors, Amber. Tim, though, grows increasingly more manipulative and intense in a bid to drive further traffic to his website. When he starts punching Amber during a scene, Corvus’s reaction – “[she] screams with no sound, her blood on fire” – distracts Tim long enough for Amber, bleeding and bruised, to smash the pornographer over the head with a broomstick. On the run, Corvus, Amber, and Marco the pit bull head to a mansion on an island and a woman named Molly who Amber believes will provide them sanctuary. But not everything is as it seems.
The King of Joy is a novel about grief, told in a dream-like haze that mostly, but not entirely, avoids any mention of time and place. The only markers to where and when the novel is set are a handful of references to the internet and California. Otherwise, there’s nary a sign of Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, nor are there any passing remarks about the current political climate. If anything, Tim’s fetish for VHS and the frequent appearance of a tape recorder gives the novel a retro flavour. This disengagement from the world is reflective of Corvus’s grief-addled state of mind. Even her ability to imagine herself away into “scenes from fantasy novels, pop songs, and action/adventure movies,” her method of dealing with a father who burnt money at the slot machines, has been smothered by despair. As Corvus describes it early in the novel:
Grief is an out-of-body thing, the worst secret you can have. You live in one terrible place trapped inside your head while your body lives in another terrible place entirely.
It’s only when Corvus connects with Amber that her sense of detachment and isolation diminishes. This friendship, which includes Marco the pit bull – frankly the star of the novel – is positive and empowering, and unlike Thelma and Louise, thankfully doesn’t end in a suicide pact (though a car does play a pivotal role in their relationship).
It’s in the second half of King of Joy, an extended flashback detailing Corvus’s marriage to Perry, that we begin to understand why his death hit her so hard, why she had no-one else to turn to after he died, why she chose to leave her life and work for a pornographer. It’s a lovely, multi-faceted character study that provides insight into Corvus as someone with a difficult past who found love when she least expected it and who was not afraid to wear her emotions on her sleeve. The Corvus that first arrives at Tim’s house is not the Corvus that fell in love with Perry, and it’s also not the Corvus that forms a strong bond with Amber. While it’s questionable whether Chiem’s finely drawn portrayal of heartache, loneliness, and isolation works alongside a hyper-real narrative about an insane, vengeful pornographer, I did find it entertaining. The climax happens in a rush, almost as if Chiem had somewhere else to be, and yet the abrupt ending doesn’t undermine what turns out to be a surprisingly poignant novel about the devastating nature of grief, but also the importance of love and friendship.
This review and more like it in the February 2019 issue of Locus.
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