Vauhini Vara
Vauhini Vara

A Review of Vauhini Vara’s “The Immortal King Rao”

When East Meets West

“The Immortal King Rao” Book Cover
“The Immortal King Rao” Book Cover

If Salman Rushdie ever had a love child with Jennifer Egan, the result would be something a little like Vauhini Vara’s debut novel The Immortal King Rao. In some quarters, this has been a highly anticipated book — gaining notice from the likes of the Times of India, Literary Hub, Ms. Magazine, The Observer, The Millions, and Vulture. The hype, though, from these quarters may be a little bit unjustified, having now read the book. The Immortal King Rao is uneven and is everything from a dystopian science-fiction novel to a family epic. Clocking in at nearly 400 pages, this is a book that could have been easily shorter or much more sweeping in grandeur. (It might have been a better read at 1,000 pages.) There’s so much story crammed into these pages that Vara often resorts to telling, not showing, and the result is a bit of a confusing mess. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t without some merit — some of it is quite fascinating. However, there are large swaths of economic and political theory, much of it which doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and the result can be, overall, a tad bit boring.

The Immortal King Rao is actually three narratives stuck into one lumbering novel. The main story is about a woman named Athena, who is in jail for a crime she might have not committed, and this piece is told from her jail cell. She reminisces about life with her exiled father, a tech scion named King Rao (yes, that’s really his name) who used to be the CEO and was the co-founder of a tech firm not unlike Microsoft (the novel is set in the Seattle area in part) or Apple Computers. The second narrative is about King Rao’s upbringing on a coconut plantation in his native India. This part of the novel portrays the plantation as a kind of Garden of Eden, which King will eventually be cast out of. The third part, and the most intriguing part, is about King’s arrival in the United States and his working up the ladder to become one of the most powerful men in the world.

If anything, Vara has an impressive vocabulary and frequently uses foreign words to describe certain things. I’m of two minds about this. One, it does give the novel a more literary quality than your standard sci-fi potboiler. On the other hand, it forces the reader to frequently run to the dictionary to understand just what the author means. The dystopian aspect of the novel is a bit troubling, silly, and hard to understand, as well. Essentially, society has moved from being run by nation-states to a universal community that is run like a corporation. Social capital is handed out to each individual and their choices either enhance or diminish that social capital. There’s a global warming element tacked onto the novel, but it seems superfluous and doesn’t aid the plot in any way. Essentially, the backdrop of the novel’s setting is a bit confusing. I know this novel is an examination of the merits and cons of both capitalism and communism. However, it doesn’t feel well thought out — for instance, Vera never accounts for political differences, really, and how that influences society in this book. In this novel, you’re either for the corporation (a capitalist) or you’re an exile (a communist or socialist). There’s no room for any in-between, and that would have benefited this story tremendously.

The other main point of contention comes particularly in the flashbacks to King’s childhood. I suppose Indian families can be large, but they don’t seem to be terribly close-knit. Thus, you’re introduced to character upon character upon character, and it’s hard to keep them straight, especially when minor characters at the start of the tale may reappear without context later in the book. Thus, either an editor needed to do a better job of cutting superfluous characters who don’t add anything to the story, or this book needed to be that 1,000-page epic I alluded to earlier, simply to get these characters room to breathe and be seen. In comparison, King’s story in America focuses on only a few specific people largely and is much easier to understand — which may be a cultural thing on my part and, if so, I apologize. But that part of the story generally becomes sillier and sillier as it progresses, as King makes improbable technological breakthroughs, such as the ability to access the Internet simply through thought. Maybe the love child isn’t between Rushdie and Egan, after all, but Rushdie and William Gibson.

Overall, I found this novel to be wanting. I did enjoy parts of it, and I suppose there are worse books that are out there waiting to be read. Still, I found myself eventually not caring about these people, and about two-thirds of the way through the book, I was thinking it might be a relief if the novel suddenly, somehow, vanished from my Kindle and I was absolved from having to review it. Though I marvel at what I’ve written so far, I really didn’t know until I started writing this what exactly I wanted to say about this book. Did I enjoy it? Somewhat. Is it a good novel? In parts, yes. Is it befuddling to read at times? Certainly. In the end, The Immortal King Rao is one of those books that had a fantastic premise to it — I do love my dystopian fiction — but failed to deliver fully on that promise. It’s too bad, really, because this is a book that could have gone places, but it needed a bit more depth and a little less political theory to be truly engaging. This book is only for the curious, and that’s about all I can really think to say about this one in the long haul, really.

Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao was published by W. W. Norton & Company on May 3, 2022.

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