Interconnected stories | Books

‘Half Gods’ review: The book as machine

An elaborate mechanical network made up of bits and pieces of emotions and situations

In 1970, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term ‘uncanny valley’, hypothesising an aesthetic revulsion towards artificial objects that mimic humanity. In our time, it is questionable how far such fine sentiments will persist, for only a thin line separates the response of revulsion from its opposite: reverence. Yet something enormously significant hangs in that balance; I think one’s grasp of humanity itself.

Now, a certain inarticulateness and breathlessness are common to both these kinds of responses. Breathless, therefore, are those marvelling phrases with which critics have greeted Half Gods, the debut volume by New Jersey-based Akil Kumarasamy. And the reader cannot miss them, because they make up the entire length of the back-jacket. Let us pause to note: the blurb, which was once a human word meant to encourage, not displace, the individual reader’s relationship with the text, is here a buzzing congregation, enforcing upon the reader the membership of a hive.

Conflicted heart

Obviously, there is no banal conspiracy in this. The reverential reviews are in all sincerity. Nevertheless, being giddy with adjectives, they are perfectly suited to be so deployed as to engineer more of the same. So, the interesting question is this: how came there to be such a synchronicity between human responses to the text, and the machinistic demands of pure marketing? This perfect match suggests a deep origin to Half Gods, a taproot that, as we explore it, brings us near the conflicted heart of modern humanity itself.

‘Half Gods’ review: The book as machine

Half Gods consists, seemingly, of short stories about various members of a family that migrated from Sri Lanka (at the onset of the civil war) to New Jersey, and sometimes their friends and acquaintances, and others who pass through their lives. Most of this volume is set in the U.S., some of it in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, but in any case the writing is shot through with reveries of episodes spanning times and spaces.

As far as plot goes, here are some of the things that happen: a young boy idolises a street-smart peer and develops a crush on his sister; that boy’s mother has an affair with her husband’s brother and gets a child from him; that child, growing up into a bisexual actor, ponders his relationship with his brother, and makes out with a girl he has come across recently; the boys’ grandfather goes to the beach and thinks about the past; his old friend, an entomologist, loses his son to the Sri Lankan civil war; an Angolan butcher is invited to a dinner with the family, and feels pitied.

These are some of the things that happen. And they are, indeed, the ‘stuff’ of life. But the uncanny valley begins here, because all these in themselves are no more ‘life’ than a humanoid robot is human. The overlap is intense, even marvellous, but it is absolutely superficial. The disjunct is a gaping void that has to do with the heart of the things concerned; the raison d’etre of people.

Cogs and wires

Here I speak with some revulsion, and therefore briefly, but what I perceive in Half Gods is not, in fact, a book of stories about people, but a piece of intricate machinery, combining cogs and wires in ways that the observer can hardly map. The eeriness of this project is sometimes glimpsed at the level of the sentences, whose form of ‘beauty’ conceals inhuman linkages: a missing son appearing in the same breath as a chopped insect; a boy described as twirling a girl’s hair like “a bandage”; the violence of a broken home rendered in loving, musical notes.

But more obvious than these is the bewildering disinterest in such fundamentals of narrative as context and crisis. This is exemplified in the volume’s epigraph, “Man or god or demon, let him in!,” which, we are blithely told, is from “the Mahabharata.”

The Mahabharata! Where from, in the Mahabharata? Spoken by whom? To whom? It doesn’t matter, and in Half Gods such things never begin to matter. Where people are really located, and what is really troubling or moving them seem of little interest to Kumarasamy. The great human realities of war or death or marriage are also essentially ignored; instead, her concern is taking all such things (‘let him in!’) and gathering them together into an elaborate network made up of bits and pieces of emotions and situations.

Mechanical unity

Of course, they can only be bits and pieces, because the fullness of human attitudes is passionate, surprising, and anathema to that mechanical unity which the author here covets. Not that a really human world lacks patterns and unities. But in authentic storytelling, these are discovered mysteriously — and this is part of what makes for the delight of reading and writing.

How, then, can so many be so delighted with this volume? Yet is that really surprising? Half Gods is certainly an extraordinary achievement, even an epochal one. Perhaps never before in history could such a work have been created, a humanly conceived book-as-machine, properly intimidating in its refusal to explain itself, and feigning to satisfy a profound human desire, by making the stuff of our little lives into something rich and dense. Except, it does it in this way: a bounden humanity enters at one end and a sausage comes out at the other.

The writer is the author, most recently, of The Outraged: Times of Ferment.

Half Gods; Akil Kumarasamy, HarperCollins, ₹499

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 26, 2020 8:06:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/half-gods-the-book-as-machine/article25796704.ece

Next Story