The moment I received Angelo R. Lacuesta’s first novel Joy and flipped through its pages, I felt a shock of surprise and recognition. The story resonates with truth and throbs with nostalgia for those who were born in the 1960s, kids in the ‘70s, and teens in the ‘80s. This is the story of a Filipino Gen-Xer, much like Lacuesta and myself.
Lucas Letrero is the narrator of this story that is firmly rooted in a particular point-of-view of Manila’s past that is middle to upper-middle class, the “broad C” demographic, as one of the characters puts it. His name derives from the word ‘luck’—“the one thing people could get that they didn’t deserve,” as his father puts it.
Lucas’s father, the intrepid Ariston, builds a recording studio and works as a composer and, at one point, as the mascot of Hiro ice cream that becomes popular in the Philippines.
He also composes the English version of the Kabuto Kaizer theme song, and works at other “rackets.” For those who grew up watching Voltes V and the other mecha anime shows of the late ‘70s, they’ll recognize the robot as a version of Mazinger Z—twenty storeys tall that needed his pilot “to glide the Utaku module into his headpiece from a supergravitational chute.”
Lucas and his mother, who had him when she was 16, are abandoned by Ariston, who flees to Los Angeles with his secretary Odette. The son hears from the father after 30 years via cryptic emails. Meanwhile, Lucas has reconnected with a childhood friend, Dedes, who has long moved to the U.S. as well. They begin a loving and sexual long-distance relationship through Skype.
The stories of other characters weave in and out—Niña, who has an affair with her driver; Teddy Yap, Ariston’s boss who builds several successful businesses from scratch; admen, sewing circle ‘titas of Manila,’ and others who live lives of either of quiet desperation or raucous enthusiasm, and all very Filipino.
Some characterizations may come off a bit skeletal—Yap seems to be in the story only as a representation of the business-minded Chinese Filipino—but the characters’ motivations and the descriptions of life and work in Manila during the ‘70s to mid-2010s ring true.
As I leaf through the pages, the scenes about advertising seem drawn from my own father’s life. The references to the robot show remind me of my stepfather, who brought in the Voltes V robot show and four others, along with the Candy Candy anime, referred to in the book as ‘Sama Sama.’ The story is filled with Filipino cultural touchstones that will resonate with those who lived through those times.
Overall looms the shadow of Marcos and the excesses of his regime, and the culture of impunity he cultivated. Perhaps all Filipino narratives set during this period will inevitably mention this; it is a psychic scar on the collective Filipino psyche.
But because of their social class, the characters in Joy seem almost untouched by Martial Law, focused as they are on the unfolding of their daily lives. Ariston and Odette in LA, in fact, only muse on the instability of the country they left—”Back home, it seemed that the threat was everywhere instead of in one namable direction or thing. It was the NPA, it was the PC. It was Marcos, it was Imelda. It was Ninoy, it was [the] Metrocom, it was the Narcom, it was the Light-A-Fire Movement.”
Throughout the novel threads the storyline of Hiro the bear and Hiro the ice cream that Teddy Yap founded, that Ariston wrote a jingle and wore the mascot suit for. The ice cream is “always delicious, always delightful, always desired. But what is the nature of this desire?
“Immediate satisfaction, yes…But at the same time, we also aim to create that distinct but ineffable feeling of anticipation…” that one ice cream will be “followed by another, and another…” until we eventually realize that Hiro ice cream stands for the trait of enjoying the fleeting before it dissipates, just like politicians’ promises, “while already yearning for the next.” We are never really satisfied; we’re always looking for the next best thing.
Lacuesta’s writing style is engaging and spry, it flows and draws you in, and will have you flipping pages until the wee hours. “Joy” is exactly that.
For comments and feedback, you may reach the author @DrJennyO on Facebook and Twitter.
By Angelo R. Lacuesta
190 pages, Penguin Random House SEA
P995.00 for pre-order at Good Intentions Books (Facebook page). Also available at major bookstores starting April 10.