Have you ever stared at a book’s synopsis and thought, ‘I’ll be surprised if I like this?’ When I came across the term ‘evil pornographer’ in the description for King of Joy and checked to see that this book’s author was a man, my involuntary reaction was to set it down. My friends, I’m not the right reader for a book with any sort of pornographic setting… or am I?
King of Joy is much more than the synopsis could ever hope to encapsulate. I usually don’t even read book synopses before diving in, and this novel proved that I should continue doing that. I’m so glad I decided to crack it open, take a gander at the first sentence, which, to me, is a much better gauge of whether to read or not to read:
“In story books, in movies, and in pop songs, Corvus has always loved the stubborn characters the most: the grim warrior fighting impaled with a sword in her abdomen; the lost dog running from state line to state line to get back home to her owner; the loser getting kicked in the teeth and choosing to smile, mouth full of blood, instead. Still, having not eaten all day, Corvus thinks, What am I doing here? There’s a fucking tree on fire and no one is doing shit.”
After that, it was difficult to put the book down.
King of Joy is a small book with a lot to meditate on through Corvus, our protagonist—our heroine! She’s an alluring character to embark on this journey of rumination and suspense. The book introduces her in glimpses, though we feel her thick sadness wherever the setting may be: a mysterious forest with what seem like partygoers (at first), a hotel room with strangers, in stilted conversation with aforementioned evil pornographer. Corvus is grieving, and her journey through the novel slowly reveals in flashback why and what led her to seek consolation and employment in dark deeds.
I found myself relating to the introverted, constantly observing Corvus. I was surprised to continue finding several elements about her that I connected to, like her attachment to an extroverted friend, as well as how she dissociates from her surroundings and imagines herself elsewhere. She spaces out. Growing up in a military family that moved nearly every year, I feel trained in being able to stare out the window and think for long, long (cross-country, even) periods of time. A transportation of another sort. Corvus allows us to follow her into her memories, the odd people and places she encounters, and the glimpses of happiness through her despairing grief.
What holds the narrative together without sinking into full depression is Chiem’s writing. He builds atmosphere and his action takes place quick, blasts of eloquent, story-changing sentences scurrying by you before you realized what’s happened.
The sense of dread delivered to its end by some violent reveal, his sentences giving off a sense of claustrophobia until you’re released, gasping. My mouth was agape once or twice in this book, one time wondering what sinister creature was lying in wait—animal or human or... ?
I can’t forget to mention that among all these menacing moments, there is humor. The novel is mesmerizing and thoughtful, but it’s fucking funny as well.
The novel is mesmerizing and thoughtful, but it’s fucking funny as well.
I’ll admit I’m a little mistrustful of men when it comes to writing women, always on my guard. Yet Chiem does a stellar job of crafting Corvus and her odyssey. I believed in her, I wanted to help her, and I wanted to sit in that car with her and her best friend when the Robyn song came on the radio.
So you see, I was surprised that I fell in love with this book. I was surprised that the beautiful, dreamy writing and character exploration also gave way to a tension-filled plot. And I was surprised that there were moments to laugh amid all the grieving. Pick up King of Joy if you want something trippy, quick to read, and oddly magnetic. It’s already one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.
King of Joy
By Richard Chiem
208 pages. 2019.
Buy it here.