‘I was what they call an “independent scholar”’, confides the narrator of Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, a middle-aged writer from New York of modest reputation who secures a three-month residency at the prestigious Deuter Centre in Berlin. While there, he hopes to write something about ‘the construction of the self in lyric poetry’ and escape the pressures of fatherhood.
However, he soon finds the ethos of the centre — on transparency, surveillance and measurable outputs — counterproductive to his notions of artistic creation. Instead, Kunzru’s protagonist is pulled away by new distractions. He discovers that the romantic writer Henrich von Kleist killed himself and a young woman in a suicide pact close to the centre; one of the centre’s cleaners tells him how her selfhood was destroyed by the Stasi; there are arguments with other researchers, dismissive of his humanist ideals, while the building itself has literally ‘whitewashed’ its history with the Nazis.
One of these distractions — a cop drama TV show, Blue Lives, that he streams on his laptop during lonely nights in his room — slips into the foreground, following a chance encounter with the show’s charismatic but malevolent creator, Anton. Present-day spectacle and past history point to a disquieting counter-narrative to the narrator’s liberal humanist values, and he soon finds his project, and his sanity, unravelling.
What follows is a strange and compelling novel of enormous significance. Although writing in a fairly conventional ‘realist’ mode, Kunzru recognises that now all the stories that a certain class — educated, liberal, cosmopolitan — have used to situate themselves in their world are an illusion — a ‘Blue Pill’ (to pick up on the Matrix reference), belated and unable to interpret the present moment.
At this point, what started out as a story of writerly manners shifts into something else entirely: we might say that the novel itself is ‘red pilled’, along with its protagonist. This disquieting counter-narrative (or ‘real’ reality) is ultimately signified by the work the narrator ends up producing in the depths of his breakdown, a wild tract written in notebooks using children’s crayons and then abandoned:
I wrote about melting glaciers and drowned cities and millions of people on the move, a future in which any claim to universal human values would be swept away by a cruel tribalism.
After his breakdown the narrator returns to New York, to his wife and young daughter and a fragile semblance of ‘normality’. In a brilliant climactic set-piece Kunzru brings the novel into 2016, as the narrator and his friends settle down to watch the American election, confident that Hillary Clinton will win and their world view will be affirmed. It ends, instead, with the seismic disruption of Trump’s election and the narrator’s realisation that ‘my madness, the madness for which I’ve been medicated and therapised and involuntarily detained, is about to become everybody’s madness’.
Red Pill stands as a final blast of sanity against this new, deranged reality. It is literary masterpiece for a barbaric new world rapidly running out of room for literary masterpieces.
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