Manu Joseph's follow-up to his PEN/Open Book Award-winning debut "Serious Men" manages that mean feat of fusing ribald farce with poignant drama. Ousep Chacko is a Madras-based journalist and failed novelist who routinely wakes the neighbors after drinking sprees and then threatens to hang himself from his lungi; his wife, Mariamma, talks to walls; Thoma, their son, has fallen for an older girl. The family, though disintegrating, is united in its grief, for three years ago Thoma's 17-year-old brother, Unni, plunged to his death from the balcony. A desperate Ousep sets out to solve the mystery of his son's supposed suicide.
What could have been another standard tale of a dysfunctional family coming apart at the seams turns out to be something far more complex and clever. Unni was a comic-book artist, and Ousep realizes that to understand his son's death he will have to decode his perverse and at times morbid cartoons, many of which address philosophical questions about the nature of delusion and happiness.
Ousep's search for the truth opens old wounds, and soon he is harassing Unni's former friends, gate-crashing a cartoonists' convention, and attempting to pry answers from a distinguished neurosurgeon and even a nun who has taken a vow of silence.
Joseph deftly rotates narrative points of view. When not shadowing Ousep and his blundering sleuth work, we switch to Mariamma and her daily ordeal of eking out sustenance from the dwindling family coffers and wrestling with her demons from the past -- or to Thoma, whose desire to impress the beautiful Mythili prompts a wave of shocking revelations. Joseph embellishes each strand with vibrant dabs of local color -- fasting protesters, gossiping neighbors, merciless teachers -- that help showcase India in all its sublime and absurd glory.
Comedy is woven throughout rather than appearing in stand-alone interludes, and Joseph frequently hits the mark. Ousep loses himself in a particularly potent booze called Jesus Christ, so called because "If you drink it you will rise only on the third day." Joseph only comes unstuck when signposting his gags with Capital Letters (Mariamma's books are about "Very Serious Matters"; a pregnant pause is a "Silence of Anticipation").
"The Illicit Happiness of Other People" is as wild, irreverent and blackly comic as Unni's cartoons. But pathos is never far away. When, in one scene, Ousep tells his son that "There are people in this world who set out to make an omelette but end up with scrambled eggs. I am just one of them," we both pity him and cheer for him, and look forward to Joseph playing with our emotions all over again.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.