Named a 2019 Writer to Watch by the Los Angeles Times, Richard Chiem has written a new novel that is equal parts sledgehammer and sweet song. King of Joy is a neon, pulsing portrait of grief, and an electrifying story of one woman’s survival against all odds.
“This novel is transfixing… I love Chiem’s writing.” ―Melissa Broder, author of The Pisces
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, King of Joy is equal parts sledgehammer and sweet song, a neon, pulsing portrait of grief.
This novel is transfixing: an imaginative meditation on emotional survival, isolation, and the beauty and limitations of human connection. I love Chiem’s writing.
A remarkable portrayal of restless youth, made sweeter by the author’s crisp, spare prose and a thoughtful portrayal of a woman who lost her way.
There’s a dream-like quality to the situations Chiem invents, and animals in the book are often attributed more admirable human qualities than the humans: people let Corvus down but pit bulls, cats, and hippopotami alike display loyalty, adoration, and a fierce protective spirit . . . There is something refreshingly ordinary about the author’s milieu. His characters are disaffected urbanites, not academics or precocious wunderkind. They listen to Elliot Smith, work menial jobs, and look forward to the end of the day when they can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. King of Joy finds Corvus occupying a bleak fork in the road. Through her struggles, she doesn’t reach any hard-fought truth; she doesn’t emerge from her suffering with a greater appreciation for life, she simply emerges, and in her world, that’s enough.
Chiem’s work is characterized by rich yet unadorned sentences, dreamlike scenes, and images that shock and awe with their astute observations. King of Joy’s subject matter is heavy, but the reader is somehow able to float above it on Chiem’s pleasant rhythms. That’s not to say that the reader isn’t going to come away from the book haunted . . . [A] tight, heartbreaking work.
King of Joy is a tale that tiptoes around the worlds of realism and absurdism as Corvus undertakes a quest for survival.
King of Joy is a perfect rendering of that feeling of dark and hopeful closeness with loss I’ve always known but could never put to words.
Richard Chiem writes like someone whispering in your ear. He’s insistent and methodical, and you want to hear every word he has to say. King of Joy takes Chiem’s unparalleled voice and carefully amplifies it, ratcheting the tension until you’re not sure where he stops and you begin. It is a brilliant, tender examination of the unholy magnitude of trauma. It shows how pain can simultaneously destroy and preserve a person. Most of all, it is just goddamn beautiful writing."
In King of Joy, Richard Chiem shows us what it is to live in the immediate, day-to-day song of forever grief. Each sentence is masterfully written and equally afflicted by the one craving that affects us all, which is the desire to belong. This book turns pain over and over in its raw mouth, exposing what it is like to feel longing in its deepest, most hidden form, and teaches us more than we could have ever hoped to learn about pure love, loss, and the hard work of accepting the human condition.
This experimental literary novel is the right amount of both dreamy and dark . . . Lush, packed with jarring details, and surprisingly tender . . . 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.
A surprisingly poignant novel about the devastating nature of grief, but also the importance of love and friendship.
Chiem is one of my favorite writers AND readers in Seattle. His meditative sentences pull you close, and then, right when he has you where he wants you, he shows you the strangest and most heartbreaking and quietly funny things you’ve ever seen. Women drunk on champagne and lighting a tree on fire. An airplane entering and then exiting the reflective mirror of a puddle. A glowing black chandelier. These are some of the striking scenes and images you’ll find as you follow the story of Corvus, a young woman who uses her imagination to cope with the pains of loss—until one day she suffers a loss so great she can’t escape.
Richard Chiem’s wonderful new novel explores the intersections of sex and survival, sadness and friendship, making art and discovering love, short-circuiting expectations at every juncture. Casually surreal and utterly spellbinding, King of Joy is a deeply moving story about our quests for various forms of oblivion.
What a funny, fresh, bittersweet masterpiece—there is no one else in the world writing like Richard Chiem. From the sentence-level wizardry to the racing plot, I feel smarter just having read this. Every page brings a new set of wonders.
Richard Chiem has followed up his collection You Private Person with a novel centered around a young woman for whom pop culture serves as a literal means of escape from the stresses of the world around her. Chiem’s novel explores our relationship to film and music even as it posits an intriguing take on grief and trauma.
[Chiem’s] fiction uses passiveness to great effect, employs it as a way to examine the world . . . You might think that a 200-page novel about a young woman who is all but emotionally dead might be boring, or aimless, or as empty as its protagonist. You would be underestimating Chiem’s considerable talents.There’s an energy seething behind the words in King of Joy, an outrage and a demand for justice, that drives the story onward . . . It goes to some delightfully weird places.
There are overtones of David Lynch and Denis Johnson . . . Chiem excels at fine, metaphorical finesse.
Kittens in vending machines, hippos rising out of dark water, broom handles made of gold: in his first novel, King of Joy, Seattle writer Richard Chiem blends comforting absurdity with the most profound reaches of grief. The result is a strange, unsettling harmony that is typical of his writing . . . The intelligence of the writing really lies in Chiem’s use of language: eschewing traditional rules of prose, he crafts a disarming and wholly original vernacular. It creates a cinematic and ultra-evocative story space . . . sure to leave an impression on readers.
Richard Chiem’s debut novel King of Joy is full of lessons—lessons about love, loss, grief and survival . . . It’s a story that takes us deep into human suffering, but still finishes with a triumphant burst of hope.
Outrageous, fast-paced, and unpredictable . . . Chiem is a skillful writer leading us in this oddball world of hippos, porn kings, and avant-garde theatre . . . Richard Chiem is a kind of literary Robyn circa Body Talk . . . This novel is not only an exploration of grief; it’s a confrontation with vulnerability, a journey from stoic numbness to an embrace of human emotion, and, in the end, a celebration of our ability to, if not heal, then at the very least, be resilient.
This novel has a mood to it, a specific tone that completely encompassing you while reading . . . His prose are sharp, often leaving you with lines you will want to read over and over again. With surreal elements, hippos and dark humor, King of Joy is an unforgettable novel, a story that beautifully dissects the very real feelings of sadness, isolation, loneliness and human connection.
A disturbingly beautiful portrayal of trauma and grief, loss and redemption, friendship and fucking—and hippos . . . It’s beautiful and painful and just psychedelic enough to make you feel like you’ve gone on a real journey when you turn the very last page.