King of Joy

Richard Chiem

Foreword Reviews - - Spotlight Diverse Voices / Fiction - CLAIRE FOSTER

Soft Skull Press (MARCH) Soft­cover $15.95 (192pp) 978-1-59376-309-1, LIT­ER­ARY

Richard Chiem’s King of Joy traces an aban­doned girl’s tragic tra­jec­tory from unloved teenager to aban­doned bride to snuff porn queen. This ex­per­i­men­tal lit­er­ary novel is the right amount of both dreamy and dark.

Corvus, limp and poi­sonous as a hu­man cig­a­rette, is at the end of her rope. She ex­ists in a cre­ative, hys­ter­i­cal sub­cul­ture that’s one party af­ter an­other.

But when she loses her hus­band, Corvus goes from grey to black. She drifts through the un­der­world of be­spoke pornog­ra­phy, where she meets Tim, her new di­rec­tor, and her co-star Am­ber, who’s a golden foil to her per­ma­nent mid­night.

The novel is lush, packed with jar­ring de­tails, and sur­pris­ingly ten­der. Corvus—who seems doomed to cir­cle the drain—in­stead re­vis­its im­ages, di­a­logue, and ob­jects that link her past to her present.

Al­though sex and porn drive the plot, Chiem chooses to leave the act it­self off­stage; this puts the novel’s fo­cus where it be­longs and in­ten­si­fies the char­ac­ters’ con­nec­tions. In King of Joy, ev­ery­one is ei­ther an ac­tor or a voyeur, in­clud­ing the reader. Chiem’s com­mand of per­spec­tive is ex­cel­lent, and each sen­sory de­tail feels like a nail on the skin.

The novel is en­tic­ingly bit­ter at times, jux­ta­pos­ing sharp im­ages against pas­tel-sen­ti­men­tal land­scapes. As Corvus trails Tim down a flight of stairs, she notes the tiny tat­too on the back of his neck: “MOM.” The bal­ance of acid and sweet is King of Joy‘s strength. Corvus’s re­la­tion­ship with Perry, in par­tic­u­lar, is un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing, nat­u­ral, and ten­der.

King of Joy is a de­li­cious, de­monic novel that fades through ad­ja­cent, loop­ing worlds in the mag­i­cal early 2000s. Chiem evokes a lost decade and sug­gests the shape of the mon­sters that churned be­neath its sur­face.

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