You can read Hari Kunzru’s new novel Red Pill as another one of those stories that depicts an emotionally frail writer who goes off to find himself and his artistic raison d’être, but winds up suffering a nervous breakdown. Lurking behind the Stephen King-like craziness, though, is an allegory of the American liberal’s state of mind when Trump runs for president in the 2016 election. Kunzru, who now lives in Brooklyn, is the son of an Indian father and a British mother. His sixth novel is loaded with pop-culture allusions, political buzz phrases, and snippets of writing from historical characters, all hovering around a backdrop of far-right social manipulation.
Kunzru’s unnamed narrator, also of Indian British heritage, claims he’s happy. He has a daughter and a wife whom he loves, and they love him, but all this happiness has made him uneasy. Isn’t that always the case with emotionally frail writers? But it’s more than a mid-life crisis; something is “profoundly but subtly wrong.” Around him, the media is full of images of violence; enormous changes abound in the “foundation for things, beliefs I had spent much of my life writing and thinking about, the various claims I made for myself in the world.” He worries if, with all these changes, he can still protect his family from the evils of the world. And he can’t seem to write.
Kunzru himself was a 2016 Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and, luckily, his fictional counterpart has also been awarded a three-month fellowship to study and work at the Deuter Center in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. You might recall that Wannsee was the town where SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich planned the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” in January 1942. If you don’t recall that terrible history, Kunzru reminds you a couple of times. And to instill an aura of evil, madness, and violence to the heightened mood of the novel, Kunzru places the Nazi conference villa, “half-hidden by trees,” but within view from the Center. Not only does Kunzru locate the conference fairly close by, he places a bunker under the Deuter Center, where “nothing very scandalous” ever happened, or so executive director, Herr Doktor Weber, insists. Even though Weber tries to promote the Center as a transparent and liberal institution, you wonder what actually did happen down there during the war and what might be happening at the Center now. Are things really as bleak and foreboding as the narrator imagines?
In this gruesome and portentous background, the project that Kunzru’s narrator and protagonist has proposed to work on at the Center is “The Lyric I,” “the construction of the self in lyric poetry…the lyric as ‘a textual technology for the organization of affective experience, and a container in which modern selfhood has come to be formulated.’” He figures that description sounded “important and good” and it got him three months in Germany and a tidy stipend. The problem with the project is, the narrator isn’t a poet, and he can’t get any writing done. The Center requires the work of each fellow be done in the Communal Workspace. But he can’t bear being watched by other fellows or by the Center. His complaining about the workspace to the director of hospitality, Frau Janowitz, and Herr Doktor Weber, does no good. What good could possibly come of complaining to people addressed as “Frau” and “Herr Doktor”? He tries to work in his room, but eventually goes to the workspace where he pretends to be deep in thought or working with the mad fervor of Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980). His actual work output is monitored and the statistical results—hours spent working, documents created, and sites visited—are slipped under his door every week like a hotel bill. He’s outraged by this intrusion, of course, but Frau Janowitz delightedly reminds him that he waived his rights to privacy when he signed the contract that he hadn’t actually read. The working conditions—at least in our hero’s mind—are unbearable and his mental condition worsens, too. Not only does he feel put upon by the “crazy bastards at Deuter Zentrum,” he’s tormented by another fellow and bully, Edgar the Neurophilosopher and “unbelievable asshole.” Edgar rarely misses a chance to deride the other fellows and mocks our hero’s work:
Experimental psychology and neuroscience had rather got ahead of the liberal arts, in Edgar’s opinion. My ‘lyric I’ or whatever I wanted to call it, might, he granted, have value in the realm of intellectual history, but only as a poignant artifact of a period that was drawing to a close.
Instead of working on the “Lyric I,” the narrator watches episodes of Blue Lives, an American TV show, created by a fellow called Anton (his real name is Gary Bridgeman). The show, whose name is Kunzru’s obvious reference to “Blue Lives Matter,” itself a corrupted hijacking of “Black Lives Matter,” is about cops, particularly Carson, who’ve “lost their moral compass,” and brutalize people. There is, however, a subtext to this violent police show, a naturalistic thriller. Out-of-place philosophical and political quotations are inserted into the characters’ dialogue. These quotes don’t come from the usual heavyweight suspects, but from the likes of the “peculiar and recondite writer,” Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. Maistre was an 18th-century “royalist zealot” who, in short, distrusted and hated religions that were not his own and despised intellectualism because they undermined the pope and the king. A medieval mind in The Age of Reason and considered a founder of European conservatism, Maistre’s words from the Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (1821) are put into Carson’s mouth:“The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar on which all living things must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without pause, until the consummation of things.”
Anton’s TV characters also spout quotations from Heraclitus, Schopenhauer, and Emil Cioran. Not only do the TV characters blurt out quotations, but bloggers, trolls, and various Internet denizens, who all seem to be followers of the show, post to forums run by fringe deplorables hosting sites for preppers, wargamers, Euroskeptics, heavy-metal fans, and tattoo artists. They talk about firearms, robotics, anime, piracy, sex, and most tellingly political theory. These trolls bear such screen-names as E. Berg, Vonn Berger, Rudy Stormberg, variations of the name Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, a 17th-century Austrian general who held off the Ottoman Turks in the siege of Vienna. The narrator believes that Anton is the man ultimately behind the general’s avatar, and that he, Anton, has spawned the troll farms. All of this is oddly reminiscent of Russian trolls and bots who posted extremist propaganda leading up to the 2016 election.
As our Kafkaesque protagonist mentally unravels, he goes for walks to the Nazi conference villa and to the graves of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel who died together in a suicide pact. Despite the walks to those graves our hero is interested in suicide only intellectually. But still….
As he continues to come apart, the Center’s maid Monika finds him hiding in his room’s bathroom wedged in a corner by the toilet. He’s trying to avoid what he assumes are the Center’s cameras spying on him, but he can’t think of a good reason why there wouldn’t be one in the bathroom, too. He hasn’t been eating at the Center and runs into Monika, whose life as a 1980s punk rocker and Stasi informant in East Berlin (which was excerpted in The New Yorker as a short story called “A Transparent Woman”) becomes an integral part of the novel’s eerie far-right undercurrent.
Besides the historical and cop show references, Kunzru alludes to The Matrix (1999) from which this novel gets its title. The “red pill” is mentioned only once in the novel by Anton, the Blue Lives guy. Not only is the pill a metaphor for inducing mystery and misery, it gives the hero and, ultimately, the reader the choice of swallowing a red pill that reveals an unpleasant truth or taking a blue pill and returning to blissful ignorance:
Anton could tell that I was about to slip off the hook. “Come inside or stay in the dark.” So much of what he said had that particular tone, that suggestion of double meaning. Come inside or stay in the dark, as if he were about to initiate me into a mystery, offer me the red pill.
Anton (even the name evokes thoughts of election tampering by the Russians) lives “rent free” inside our hero’s head, but rent free is more than a facetious idiom; it’s more kin to Pink Floyd’s lunatic, so much so that our poor lunatic follows Anton to Paris and Scotland and would, you might think, follow him to the Dark Side of the Moon.
Kunzru, who I hope had a better time during his own fellowship in Berlin, packs this novel with a matrix of rabbit holes, obvious and obscure allusions that evoke a sense of anxiety and madness. The allusions and the quotations, the sociopolitical philosophy and the implied and actual violence move the story along at a bipolar pace, alternately restrained and frenzied, but Kunzru adds elements of humor that lessen the horror of reading about a man’s tumble into breakdown and insanity, and his eventual recovery, at least, up to the November 8th election results.