Early on in King of Joy, Seattle author Richard Chiem writes a kind of thesis: “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.” This idea—that trauma thickens the membrane between physical and mental worlds—dominates Chiem’s brief first novel aesthetically and emotionally.

The book’s protagonist, Corvus, has suffered a trauma, even multiple—though the particulars remain obscure until later. But Corvus does not impel the narrative. She occupies it, numbed from champagne, coke, weed, and the resulting text hangs like a fog around a lurid, surreal story that floats around more than powers forward. In the opening scene “half-naked girls” dance around a tree they’ve literally torched. Then Corvus works for a malevolent porn director. Her boyfriend premieres a despairing play about her. She lingers around in bed with her new partner Amber, who was one of the tree-burners. They go to a mansion, owned by another porn mogul, that’s surrounded by hippos bought from the Columbian government after the fall of Pablo Escobar.

There are overtones of David Lynch and Denis Johnson in the strange shifting landscapes, though Chiem is not as consistently funny as either. Even Chiem’s language, detached and mesmeric, feels akin to the particular flatness Lynch coaxes from actors. This language, more than character or plot, becomes the book’s engine. Chiem excels at fine, metaphorical finesse: A firetruck “banshees by,” Corvus “feels glee in needles,” and “beads of rain blink on the car window.” Yet elsewhere the prose clunks. Corvus “thinks about how she loves coming home, how coming home is one of her favorite things. Slamming a screen door feels like perfect…. She loves the house empty and to herself.” Redundancies like this abound. They might reach for an estrangement of language from being, that thickening membrane, another instance of Chiem’s thesis. But they don’t grasp it.

Instead the book veers between compelling and lackluster, even within paragraphs; the precision of “feels like perfect” almost absolves. And that unevenness is exacerbated by late tropes (like a depressed writer who isn’t writing) and a sudden, flimsy ending. So eventually, and sadly, I succumbed to the characters’ numbness. 

“I feel really tired,” one says.

“We can just drift if you want,” Corvus replies.

► Richard Chiem: King of Joy, March 5, Elliott Bay Book Company

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