Review: ‘The Immortal King Rao,’ by Vauhini Vara
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THE IMMORTAL KING RAO, by Vauhini Vara
The premise of Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” is as simple as could be: A young woman named Athena, raised in secret on an island in the Puget Sound by an aging father who has injected her with genetic code that allows her to access the entire internet and also all his memories, finds herself in a prison named after her mother, awaiting judgment by algorithm for a crime she insists she did not commit. While she waits, she writes a lengthy self-defense addressed to the Shareholders of the mega-corporation that has replaced the U.S. government, indeed all governments, just as “Shareholder” with a capital “s” has replaced the word “citizen.”
Let me try that again. The premise of “The Immortal King Rao” is as simple as could be: A boy named King Rao is born into a large Dalit Indian family that has gained a foothold in the middle class through shrewd investment in a coconut farm. King is sent to study engineering in the United States, where he becomes the lead programmer and public face of an early computer company turned lifestyle brand turned global superpower, eclipsing Gates, Jobs et al. After falling spectacularly from grace, King retreats to a small island where his daughter, Athena, plays Miranda to his Prospero: ward, caretaker, secret sharer. He hopes for a day when he might right the wrongs he committed, as well as those he feels were committed against him.
Once more, with feeling. The premise of “The Immortal King Rao” is as simple as could be: A phenomenon called Hothouse Earth, the endgame of climate collapse, is gradually extinguishing human civilization and probably all life on the planet. But this idea is too big and scary for anyone to deal with, so they don’t. The Shareholder Government continues to use Social Capital ratings to keep its Shareholders working, consuming and posting. Meanwhile, in the Blanklands — formally recognized autonomous zones outside of Shareholder control — people who call themselves Exes have achieved something like functional anarcho-communism à la Proudhon’s workers’ collectives. The Exes believe that as the contradictions inherent in the Shareholder system become harder to ignore, more people will embrace their model. Unfortunately, by the time everyone turns toward their city on a hill, there’s a good chance that hill will be underwater.
At 370 pages, “Rao” is on the short side for a multigenerational family saga and sweeping social epic. (Not to mention the sci-fi stuff, though the novel is science-fictional only insofar as it involves some fictional science.) Measured spine to spine against, say, Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections,” Mira Jacob’s “Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” or Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” — to say nothing of older, baggier monsters like “A Suitable Boy” or “Independent People” — “Rao” might appear at first like a welterweight among heavies. Don’t be fooled.
Vara, a former tech reporter for The Wall Street Journal and business editor for The New Yorker, is a minimalist’s maximalist, leavening lushness of language with economy of execution. When Athena gets overwhelmed by an early dose of King’s memories, she flashes past “the hiss of coconuts drying over charcoal; the metallic scent of the blood from a mother’s menstrual cloths; the sense of being naked next to a lover; and, finally, black-and-white speckles that darkened until I could no longer see, or even feel, anything at all.” The novel makes rapid shifts between registers of rhetoric and modes of attention, and it moves just as deftly between timelines. King’s and Athena’s stories are braided, as are the stories of the first decades of the Republic of India, the last decades of the United States and the birth of the Shareholder Government.
Information-dense microhistories of industry and culture (the Unilever corporation, the Altair 8800 personal computer, human cultivation of the coconut) are folded into scenes of achingly intimate sensory detail. In one of my favorites, King is on the Seattle waterfront shortly after he arrives in America, watching two teenage girls hand-feed each other breaded cod from cardboard containers that remind him of the hats the nurses wore at the clinic in his village. “He realized they were imitating the baby sea gulls that sat on the fencing, waiting to be fed by their mothers,” Vara writes. “In the far distance, the shipping cranes were like flower pistils, bent and red with shame.” The shame is King’s own; since losing his student housing in a bureaucratic snafu, he has been sleeping on the city bus. After a brief interaction with the girls goes sour, they “averted their gazes, rose and went off, leaving their little hat of fish on the table.”
At one point, Athena asks what it means “to be a person among people — to be a social animal, with an obligation to kin and species.” The question is far from rhetorical. When Athena leaves home for the Blanklands at 17, she experiences all sorts of firsts: first time in a social structure larger than her two-person family, first time she sees a woman’s body that is not her own, first time she notices a man noticing her and must make an assessment of his intentions. She is now far enough away from King to be free of his bio-tech mind meld: “For the first time I was alone.”
How to mediate between the competing interests of autonomy and collectivity, the desire for self-sovereignty and the reality of interdependence, is the major question this novel poses, over and over, at familial, societal and global scale. When the Rao clan votes to decollectivize the coconut farm that they call the Garden, the decision is framed in terms of choice and opportunity. But the establishment of job tiers and wage brackets destroys the social fabric of Garden life; with every nuclear family on the property buying their own groceries, it’s impossible to cook and eat together. And, of course, the work that the women do (cooking, cleaning, child care) is not compensated at all. Without that work, the men can’t hold their wage-jobs, but if women were to be salaried in proportion to the actual value of their labor, it would break the bank.
The case in point is as simple as could be: So-called free markets are always built on acts of dispossession and fueled by institutionalized exploitation. All of this is then narrativized into a fairy tale about invisible hands and “natural” hierarchies, to make these acts of rapacity and despoliation seem sourceless and inevitable, so that nobody in particular can be held responsible for their perpetration and perpetuation. So too with the Indian caste system, the British Empire, the American empire, the Shareholder Government and the ghoulish pursuit of immortality itself.
“The Immortal King Rao” is a monumental achievement: beautiful and brilliant, heartbreaking and wise, but also pitiless, which may be controversial to list among its virtues but is in fact essential to its success. Vara respects her reader and herself too much to yield to the temptation to console us. How rare these days as a reader — and how bracing, in the finest way — to encounter a novel that refuses to treat you like a child or a studio audience. If that were the only thing to love about “Rao,” it would probably be enough. But as I’ve said, there’s also everything else.
Justin Taylor’s most recent book is the memoir “Riding With the Ghost.”
THE IMMORTAL KING RAO, by Vauhini Vara | 374 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $27.95Re