Review: Red Pill

Three years ago, I wrote of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears that “it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning.” His subsequent novel, Red Pill, a text that sends its liberal protagonist spiralling into existential despair in response to the rise of fascism in the US, fits that bill even more closely, as its disorienting effects spill over beyond the page to destabilise the worldview of the presumed liberal reader.

Our unnamed narrator is a writer from New York who, struggling to find the mental space to begin his next project (a book on the construction of the self in lyric poetry), accepts a fellowship from the Deuter Center, an artists’ colony of a sort in Wannsee, that notorious suburb of Berlin. When he arrives at the Center, anticipating several months of productive solitude, he’s horrified to discover (having apparently not read the Center’s literature thoroughly) that he’ll be required to work in an open-plan office, have his IT activity surveilled by Center staff, and attend communal meals with other residents, including an insufferable neuropsychologist who insists that the self does not exist except as an epiphenomenon generated by deterministic neurochemical interactions in the body. As he plunges deeper into an emotional crisis whose seeds were sown long before his arrival at the Center, he retreats to his room, becoming fascinated by the super-violent cop drama Blue Lives and its nihilistic creator Anton. It’s an obsession that takes him across Europe: to Paris, to the extreme north of Scotland; and, finally, back to New York, on election night, the night of 9th November 2016.

The key dynamic in the novel, then, is instability: the gradual erosion of the narrator’s – and, by extension, our – ideas about the self, the importance of human rights, the very primacy of the human, in the face of ideologies like Edgar’s, which reduces human experience to biology, and like Anton’s, which posit power as the only reality. In the face of the recognition Anton gains for his blood-soaked and often racist dramas, the narrator’s profound writer’s block is significant: although he’s instinctively repelled by these ideas, he feels completely unequipped to counter them in any meaningful way, and they thus come to seem inescapable.

As a writer and liberal myself, watching country after country (Sweden, Chile, the UK) drift further and further to the right: yes. Kunzru’s nailed that sense of things slipping out of control, and of feeling powerless to do anything about it. And because his narrator is unnamed, because his precise politics remain unarticulated, because he has achieved very little career-wise and lives a largely unremarkable middle-class life, the reader is able to generalise the existential instability he’s feeling into their own life; in other words, the non-specificity of the narrator is one of the ways in which the text breaches the “fourth wall”, as it were, engendering in the reader the same sensations of dislocation and disorientation as the narrator experiences.

Another way it does this is, similarly to White Tears, by sustaining uncertainty about basic facts of the narrative. In the novel’s first half, the narrator becomes convinced on the basis of partial evidence that the Deuter Center is filming residents covertly, in their rooms, as well as conducting more overt forms of surveillance. The question of whether there is actually a hidden camera in the narrator’s room is never resolved. Would an apparently respectable and above-board research establishment really engage in such activities? Surely not, right? But then the narrator has seen footage of a naked Edgar walking across his room, clearly oblivious to the fact he’s being filmed. So…? This uncertainty disturbs our ideas of what we can expect from a narrative, just as Anton’s open avowal of his own racism disturbs the narrator’s ideas of what opinions are socially acceptable to express. Is this really happening? Is this person really saying what he’s saying? Surely not? And yet.

This sensation of dislocation seems at first glance to be highly specific to this particular historical moment, a response to unique sociopolitical conditions that include the popularisation of incoherent conspiracy theories like QAnon, the cottage-industrialisation of disinformation on social media platforms, and the deprecation of religion as a social force and moral arbiter. But a long section in the centre of the novel set in Cold War-era East Germany demonstrates that such dislocation has been experienced in other times and other places. Narrated by Monika, a cleaner at the Deuter Center, this section tells the story of her life as a young person in the underground music scene in the Communist country, as she’s forced by the Stasi into informing on her friends and acquaintances. The paranoia that this situation engenders in her is described in terms that make it feel very similar to our narrator’s sense that the basic facts of his life are shifting around him:

“all sorts of personal things went missing or were moved around in the apartment. Someone took 100 marks from the pocket of Elli’s [her housemate’s] leather jacket. Katja’s [another housemate’s] photos were left out on her bed…Who would leave a used sanitary towel by her bed? Or tear pages out of Elli’s books?”

Who would go to the logistical trouble of moving stuff around Monika’s shared apartment just to mess with her and her housemates? And yet…The section ends with another dislocation: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Monika learns that everything that she assumed about her life in East Germany was incorrect.

The salient point about Monika’s narrative, I think, is that the destabilisation she experiences is caused directly by the machinations of an authoritarian regime; what does it say about our narrator’s present that he is experiencing those same effects? Kunzru suggests that it’s nothing good. The Deuter Center’s location near the venue of the Wannsee Conference, at which the Nazis set out their final solution, gestures at the nightmare towards which people like Anton may be steering us.

Red Pill, then, masterfully evokes the despair and dislocation, the profound sense of irrationality, that the left has been experiencing over the last six years; the feeling that we are no longer capable of understanding the world we live in or responding to it coherently. What it’s missing is any suggestion of how we move forward from here. That’s part of the point, of course; the protagonist’s powerlessness, his profound isolation, is a feature, not a bug. But his very inability to respond gestures at the shape of what our response should be. In the face of the certainty of the far right we too must be certain. We must articulate our politics, declare our truth in everything we create; we must organise, hold each other up, make the world make sense again. Only by coming together can we save ourselves.

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