Richard Chiem’s ‘King of Joy’ Dares to Pull That Disquieting Trigger Within Us All

No one is more desperate for relief than Chiem's Corvus.

King of Joy Richard Chiem Book Review
King of Joy Book Cover King of Joy
Richard Chiem
Adult Fiction
Soft Skull Press
March 5, 2019
Paperback
208

Corvus has always had an overactive imagination. Growing up, she develops a unique coping mechanism: she can imagine herself out of any situation, no matter how terrible. To get through each day, Corvus escapes into scenes from fantasy novels, pop songs, and action/adventure movies, and survives by turning the everyday into just another role to play in the movie of her life.

After a tragic loss, Corvus finds a sadness so great she cannot imagine it away. Instead, she finds Tim, a pornographer with unconventional methods, who offers her a new way to escape into movies. But when a sinister plot of greed and betrayal is revealed, Corvus must fight to reclaim her independence, and discovers she is stronger than even she could have imagined.

Written in Richard Chiem’s singular style, this debut novel is equal parts sledgehammer and sweet song, a neon, pulsing portrait of grief. King of Joy tells the triumphant, electrifying story of one woman’s quest for survival against all odds, and serves as a reminder that resilience can be found even in our most hopeless moments.

Corvus has nothing left to lose. Her mind is a miasma of sharp objects, of painful memories so profound it renders her numb to the world around her. Everyone and everything she’s ever loved is dead and gone, and one can’t help but bow in sadness at all the ways life has turned its back on her. Yet, we hold out hope that the storm of Corvus’ life will make way for a silver lining — tomorrow, today, right now.

In Richard Chiem’s debut novel King of Joy, a book always on the brink of a breakdown, grief is a tide that cannot draw back its weight. It is the restless sting of a suicide letter from your beloved; the final yowl of the house pet; the claustrophobic grip of a room gone cold and silent — it is the thing that whispers us to the precipice, one foot over the deep end.

It’s scary to see you made it through a night you don’t remember. The feeling is like eyeing a speeding car rush past you, missing you by an inch or a second.

— excerpt from Richard Chiem’s King of Joy

We first meet Corvus on the edge of suffering, freshly wounded by some undisclosed trauma, lingering to the closest asylum within reach: in a den of other damaged girls like herself, under the sadistic rulership of a pornographer with mommy issues. Stoked by the arbitrary blare of familiar pop songs and the blowing wind against her face, with the help of her blissfully deranged ally Amber, Corvus may have fled her captor, for now, but she cannot shift the shadows of her past. Finally, as King of Joy reveals a hidden chapter of her life, we come to learn more about the anxiety keeping Corvus up at night: she was in love with a boy who, bandaged by failure and shame, succumbed to the same darkness she has been trying to parry her entire life.

From there, the story unfolds like a fever dream — one of hippos, pornographers, morbid humor, and strange love — that doesn’t appear like a cure for anxiety at first, but if you survive the glum and genius of Chiem’s acuity, I promise you a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.

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