Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill has the trappings of a thriller you might buy at an airport. It involves a chase of sorts, one that starts in the suburbs of Berlin, moves back in time to Stasi-controlled East Germany, and then trapezes around from Paris to the highlands outside Glasgow and, finally, to Brooklyn. There are spies, intrigue, Peeping Toms, conspiracy, and violence haunting the many corners of his novel, and yet the sensibility of the book is much more digressive, cerebral, and torturously self-conscious. That’s because at its core, Red Pill is a novel of ideas, probing seemingly disparate poles of thought: the conception of the self, the creation of whiteness in European Romanticism, and the threat of the Internet—the way it has destroyed our sense of privacy, circulated fringe ideas, and popularized the alt-right.
Much of Red Pill’s action happens in the head of a stock character familiar to anyone who has read contemporary fiction. The narrator is a guilt-ridden, neurotic, middle-aged writer who lives in Brooklyn and spends more time doom-scrolling than writing. Like Kunzru, he is a South Asian British expat, but unlike his creator, he’s not a fiction writer but a cultural essayist—the kind you might recognize in the liminal space between the academy and the general interest magazine. He is also in the throes of a midlife crisis, but one of a more philosophical nature.
Kunzru’s protagonist has just been awarded a prestigious fellowship at a Berlin arts foundation called the Deuter Center, an haute and vaguely libertarian residency based on ideas of collaboration. Yet on the eve of his departure for Europe, he admits the only thing on his mind is the dire state of world affairs—the upcoming 2016 presidential election, the global refugee crisis, and the images of war and death that litter his computer screen. No amount of distance and time spent writing will resolve any of the feral dread his news feed produces. Instead our hero spends the sleepless nights before his trip in tears and in the company of his glowing laptop. He’s crying not out of empathy but out of fear, mostly directed toward his own soft, doughy uselessness: “If the world changed, would I be able to protect my family? Could I scale the fence with my little girl on my shoulders? Would I be able to keep hold of my wife’s hand as the rubber boat overturned? Our life together was fragile. One day something would break.”
These primal impulses toward preserving the family unit and, by extension, the status quo are constantly on his mind, and his worry begins to fester into obsession once he is in Berlin. For our narrator, the first sign that things will not go well is the prospect of working in an open office at the center. His discomfort with the arrangements—an invasion of privacy, in his opinion—eventually grows into paranoia as he begins to believe the staff is keeping an eye on his comings and goings. Passing his time eating Chinese takeout, walking around the lakeside near the center, reading Heinrich von Kleist, and binge-watching a violent and baroque police procedural called Blue Lives, he does everything but complete the project he went to Berlin for.
Here we can sympathize with him. I don’t think many would want to finish his book, a broad and, by his own admission, pedantic study of the history and “construction of the self in lyric poetry” (i.e., a book about how poets through the ages have used the word “I”). It is precisely the pointlessness of this work, smashed up against his sense of dispossession, that propels him to find new purpose, one he stumbles upon in a chance encounter at a gala and a kebab shop, where he meets an avatar for everything wrong with the Western world—white supremacy, the Internet, and bad television. From here, the chase begins as our narrator sets off on a mock-tragic quest to root out the wicked forces he thinks are hurtling us toward a hellish future.
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On its face, this premise and the style in which it is packaged are transparently ridiculous. But ridiculousness is also the motor for much of our world, especially the banter among self-serious people like our narrator. If there is a lasting value to Red Pill, it is in its clever and thoughtful critique of the urge of many creative and purportedly progressive people to make themselves heroes—or at the very least historical subjects—at a moment in which they clearly have so little agency or role to play. To Kunzru’s credit, he recognizes how far this kind of fatalist comedy can take us and makes the most of it. Red Pill, after all, is a bleak novel about how writers aren’t going to save anyone—including themselves.
Born in London in 1969, Kunzru began his career as a novelist tackling topics befitting a Gen Xer: identity, globalization, and the end of history. His first book, The Impressionist, was a magical-realist-inflected historical novel about British colonialism, and his second, Transmission, was a comedy of errors about tech and immigration. In his 2008 My Revolutions, he began to move toward the recurring themes of his more recent work. A brainy romp about the failures of the British New Left, it marked the beginning of the form his novels now take: frenetic and cinematic high/low hybrids that chart a path through a wide-ranging ideological debate and historical inquiry.
Since the release of My Revolutions, Kunzru has lived in the United States, and his novels have become even more antic, roving, and ambitious. Gods Without Men (2011) was a systems novel set in the dusty locales of the American West that explored many of the taboos and canards in American culture: UFO cultists, meth lab tweakers, sensationalist TV news networks, the mysticism of the stock market, and helicopter parenting. Through his exploration of these realms, Kunzru showed the interconnected yet contradictory nature of belief—secular, extraterrestrial, and spiritual—;that sharpened the paranoid style of 2010s America, where anti-vaxxers and free market evangelists existed in the same body politic as progressive liberals.
In his 2017 follow-up, White Tears, Kunzru continued to mine these paradoxes, telling the story of a young white audiophile haunted by a blues song as old as recorded music who ends up on a journey to the South to absolve himself of the sins committed by previous generations of culture vultures. Like Gods Without Men, the book looks at the invidiousness of obsession and spins a sprawling yarn that in this case examines cultural appropriation, the prison-industrial complex, and the racism of the American music industry.
The project of Kunzru’s American novels was to animate and satirize the highly interconnected alienation of life in the United States. In following the foibles of people who strain to find meaning or make positive changes to their lives and families, he illustrated the way many of his new neighbors find themselves at the mercy of forces that individual actors can’t fix. Be it a devilish trading algorithm or a cursed vinyl record, a child lost in the desert or a patrician family that builds prisons, he created networks—through narratives as well as characters—to make a point about the social and economic conditions that crush his narrators’ abortive attempts at more meaningful lives. We are, indeed, all connected, but not necessarily in ways that we like.
Red Pill picks up many of the themes of Kunzru’s American novels. In it he scrutinizes the malignant influence of the Internet on solidarity, love, and care. Though its protagonist lives in America, the novel also represents something of a return to Kunzru’s Europe. This is true in the book’s setting as well as in its interest in finding the place where the freneticism of American digital culture and Old World European racism, nihilism, and apocalyptic thought meet.
Red Pill is perhaps Kunzru’s most overtly political novel. It not only engages the world of electoral politics but also offers an unsparing study of the flaccid state of 21st century liberalism and the intellectuals and creative types who hold on to its false promise of order and reason. Kunzru’s narrator disdains reactionaries, but like many good bourgeois writers, he also spurns what he sees as the coarseness of the politics that might be needed to challenge them. “The only political slogan that had ever really moved me,” he tells us, “was Ne travaillez jamais and the attempt to live that out had run into the predictable obstacles.” In conversations with his wife, Rei, he also shows how willing he is to escape into outworn historical analogies rather than confront the present. “Have you been online lately?” he asks her. “I think this is what Weimar Germany must have felt like.” Then, predictably, he compares himself to Walter Benjamin.
Like many in his milieu, our narrator sees the political and the intellectual as separate strands of life, and given that the political creates so much anxiety for him, he’s far more comfortable with the intellectual. Fluent in critical theory and pop culture, he sees his role as an interpreter, even if the critical work of interpretation is being made obsolete by a world that demands action. He recognizes this tension but is so wedded to a self-fulfilling fatalism that when called to defend his work by a fellow scholar at the center, he justifies his inability to do so as something outside his immediate control.
By focusing much of the book on the mental and moral contortions of those liberal but often apolitical writers who prefer to see themselves as above the risks and commitments of action, Kunzru offers us a cunning and damning portrait of many of his peers. But by throwing this character into a world of intrigue and political activity, he also shows the limited role these writers and intellectuals can play.
If Kunzru were simply to follow his unnamed narrator, the novel would likely crumble under the weight of the latter’s dreary inactivity and proclivity for clichéd pronouncements. But Kunzru also uses the story as a vehicle to explore the world around his protagonist. Through him, we meet ex–Stasi spies, gun-toting porters, alt-right television show producers, and dumpster-diving migrants, and we are given a sharp and desolate picture of 21st century Berlin. Like many of its peer cities, it is a metropole consumed by the contradictions and violence of the powerful—;a place where, throughout its history, power has been exerted by the state and where mass media has created a more atomized way of life.
Monika, a maid at the Deuter Center, helps bring this theme to the fore. She and the narrator first meet when she is cleaning his apartment and finds him passed out in the bathroom. He sees her as someone who might have the answers about the dark forces he senses within and outside the walls of the center. She sees him for what he is: an addled writer in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Yet she agrees to have dinner with him at the Chinese restaurant he frequents, where she tells him her life story.
Monika, it turns out, was once a punk drummer and denizen of East Berlin’s bohemian set. In those years, she ran away from home and school and worked in a textile factory, but she soon found herself beset by boredom and anger. She refused to join Free German Youth or to acquiesce to the needs of the “piss schnapps” functionaries who paid for her manual labor. Then she fell in with the punks of Friedrichshain and began huffing paint thinner and moshing at secret shows. Eventually she joined a band led by two women she met and moved into their squat. Just as she was settling into her new life, a Stasi agent tried to coerce her into keeping tabs on her friends. Monika refused, so the Stasi sowed seeds of doubt about her among her social set, planting items at her workplace and in her apartment to make it appear she had become a snitch after all. Left with no other options after her friends turned on her, she became an informant, traveling around East Germany and snooping on punks and dissidents in other cities, until she was abandoned by the Stasi once her usefulness had run its course.
Our narrator sits in the restaurant and takes in the story with as much empathy as he can muster, trying to salvage from this bleakest of lives some kind of connection with his less-bleak but still sad-sack one. But even if he struggles to find the kinship he so desires, it’s clear why we are hearing Monika’s story. Through her, Kunzru offers an example of how power can be wielded—by the state or by one’s peers—to destroy a person’s sense of self and solidarity, which contrasts with the narrator’s. (“You’re soft and selfish,” she tells him. “The world will chew you up and spit you out.”) Here, Kunzru gives us a real historical subject, an ordinary person whose hardship comes from her attempt at creating community in the face of a state and culture hostile to it.
Agency, probably, is a myth for everyone, writer or regular citizen. But unlike our narrator, Monika long ago has come to terms with this. Meanwhile, the narrator tries to do everything he can to resist this realization. He sees evil everywhere—in television shows, in online forums, at the ballot box—and in the wake of her story, he struggles to overcome it. He’s just as ensnared in a system that wants him to be alone and powerless, but he still holds on to a notion of defiant selfhood. For both the narrator and Monika, the institutions that should take care of people have not only failed but participate in perpetuating this lack of care. Our narrator is convinced he can change this.
Monika’s story is one of the rare sections of Red Pill that is more or less earnest and humorless, a kind of step back before the book’s gears of absurdity begin to grind again. When Monika exits from the novel, the narrative moves into overdrive, and the villain is revealed: Anton, the creator of the violent cop show that our narrator has become obsessed with during his time in Berlin. Like him, Anton is a stock character but in a different sense, a composite of the loudmouthed, reactionary cultural ideologues who are hawkish salesmen for new tech and fringe ideas—a kind of cross of Richard Spencer, Elon Musk, and Joe Rogan. Anton’s television show, our narrator observes, is “very conventional, but something else was at work, a subtext smuggled into the familiar procedural narrative.” In a twist that strains credulity, that subtext is reactionary philosophy, ranging from the Counter-Enlightenment to nihilism. Blue Lives’ characters quote passages from figures like the French monarchist and counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre and the Romanian philosopher of pessimism Emil Cioran, and the show’s creator, we later discover, is an evangelist for a garbled mix of tech-bro accelerationism and old-fashioned race science. Before meeting Anton, the narrator sees Blue Lives as “just an elaborate illustration of some point of view of the writer, something to do with the world’s hopelessness.” After they meet, he sees a darker agenda. Anton could reach millions of people with his work, whereas the narrator could hope to influence only a cloistered few. And while the novel’s title appears only once in the text, its meaning should be pretty obvious by now: The narrator worries that Blue Lives is a gateway drug for the alt-right.
The narrator’s fateful meeting with Anton and the lopsided battle it spawns give shape to the rest of the book’s action. At a gala in a tony part of West Berlin, the narrator, still reeling from his encounter with Monika, is introduced to Anton, and after a clumsy conversation about Blue Lives, the two end up having dinner at a kebab restaurant, where Anton reveals what he really is: a high-powered troll, a conservative “chad” counterpart for our “lib” narrator.
For the rest of the novel, this reactionary doppelgänger haunts our protagonist. He “lives rent free,” as Anton puts it, in the narrator’s head; Anton torments him in real life, too, stopping by for a visit at the center, where he poses as an acquaintance obsessed with Nazi arcana, and later as a shadowy figure in a sprawling, QAnon-style conspiracy theory the narrator imagines taking place in online forums. While the narrator’s life was obviously falling apart before he met Anton, this introduction to his nemesis tilts him toward madness. As someone tasked with interpreting culture, he becomes fixated on the idea that Anton’s show is a primary organ for the violent and callow conditions the narrator sees emerging around him. He is so disturbed by this realization that he abandons his writing and commits himself to combat with Anton and his ideas, following him first to Paris and then to a final showdown in the highlands of Scotland.
Things don’t go well from the outset. In Paris the narrator attends a speech during which Anton presents his unvarnished vision of the automated future. This new world “belonged to those who could separate themselves out from the herd, intelligence-wise…. Everything important would be done by a small cognitive elite of humans and AIs, working together to self-optimize.” Our now-unhinged narrator blurts out during the Q&A section, “Why are you promoting a future in which some people treat others like raw material? That’s a disgusting vision.” Anton, of course, just shrugs him off:
I’m sorry it gives you sad feels, but I think it’s how it’s going to be. Some people will have agency and others won’t…. Despite your outraged tone, all you’re doing is describing your own preference, which, when you think about it, is more or less irrelevant when assessing the truth or falsity of a prediction.
As a character, Anton at times feels hollow, stitched together from the catchphrases that a hectoring online conservative might lob in a Twitter thread. He’s a bit of an overdetermined symbol, a stand-in for how politics, the economy, and the dark corners of the Internet and entertainment are intertwined. But there is a deeper problem with Anton as a character: We learn very little about his world. While it is true that belief in conspiracy theories is a powerful part of everyday life (QAnon’s growing influence on electoral politics should indicate that), the narrator’s inability to respond effectively to Anton tells us only about the fecklessness of well-intentioned but often daft liberal intellectuals; it tells us very little about why people end up taking that red pill.
Behind each alt-right forum post is a person, but these people go entirely unexamined in Kunzru’s novel. Its discussions of race also seem underdeveloped. Race exists as a theme and is central to Anton’s bizarre articulations, but we learn very little about how the experience of race shapes the narrator’s life. All we know is that Anton holds abhorrent views, that the narrator has mostly admirable liberal ones, and that Anton always wins.
Our narrator doesn’t catch up with Anton in the end. The next time we see his nemesis is on a television screen, in a MAGA hat on election night, when the narrator is back home in Brooklyn. He’s watching the returns with his wife and friends. They’re there to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s impending victory—until, obviously, the unthinkable happens. Here, too, Kunzru twists the knife. While Anton has ridden the right-wing wave to the doorstep of power, our narrator is even more anxious and useless than he was at the book’s opening.
After their friends leave the party dejected, the narrator and his wife spend a sleepless night on their phones. Just as at the start of the novel, the narrator fixates on his family and the world that awaits them. He understands that coping with the present will entail learning something he didn’t understand at the beginning: that agency cannot come through the self in its isolated state. “We must remember,” he tells us, “that we do not exist alone.”