I had just reached the hippos when an e-mail came through declaring King of Joy "a most anticipated book of 2019." We'll see, I thought. I was partway through the novel, and the outlook wasn't good.
King of Joy, by Seattle author Richard Chiem, tells the story of a woman named Corvus (which not only sounds pretentious, but is, in fact, Latin for "crow") who is in deep mourning for her husband, Perry. She buries her sorrow by moving to the woods and engaging in artful pornography directed by a creepy acquaintance named Tim.
"There is porn and there is porn and then there's Tim's method of living with his actors," the narrator informs us. Theoretically this narration comes from Corvus or perhaps their shared community of art appreciators. Whoever it is that's speaking, they aren't objective enough to acknowledge that Tim's setup isn't very original. The porn actors are women and they're all high on various drugs, which leads to vague, sensory descriptions of a debaucherous lifestyle. Tim's fancy, auteur porn is implied to be woman-on-woman, unless Tim is in a scene. That lets you know this book isn't going anywhere truly provocative.
King of Joy is all the boring part of porn—the bad acting before the fucking. "Everyone has their favorite particular body part, [a porn actor named] Amber says, walking barefoot from the cool stone marble balcony, her soft robe billowing around her in the draft." Chiem excellently chronicles the sort of flirty conversation people have when they're too hungover to say anything worthwhile, but feeling just well enough to fuck.
Yet there isn't any fucking in the book. It's all blonde ladies named Amber saying things like "I like your collarbone," and then the story artfully cuts away.
There are some memorable moments, though. The hippos scene is pretty good. At the novel's midpoint, Corvus flees the exploitive house in the woods and follows Amber to a mansion on an island. In the lake surrounding the island are hippos, just chilling.
Chiem's prose flows forth like a broken faucet. I imagine some editor in the background frantically searching for the emergency water shutoff. Chiem ignores most punctuation, but he's allowed to skirt the rules because it works. It's too bad about the plot.
Chiem's first book, You Private Person, was a collection of shorts that contained a hazy, mumblecore sort of glamour. It's easy to see that Chiem expanded on this style for King of Joy.
Ultimately, King of Joy is aimed at the heart of a very specific 1990s-era sensibility. There are romantic descriptions of raves, and causal asides about Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes. I'm probably a little too young for King of Joy, and a little too sober. I've been to drug parties where people on the floor pawed at the person setting up lines, but I like to be realistic about it. Inside a drug haze, everything feels warm, genius, and epic, but we've all looked at our notes the next day and realized the genius thoughts we had while high are usually nothing special.
(Richard Chiem will read from King of Joy and be joined in conversation by Janice Lee, author of The Sky Isn’t Blue. Thurs March 7, 7:30 pm, Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne, free)