Article Content Warning: mention of suicide
Book Content Warning: mention of suicide, mental health issues, racism
Red Pill by Hari Kunzru is the kind of novel that forces you to turn page after page, your eyes drawn—willingly or not—to each successive paragraph. I know this because I kept deluding myself into thinking I’d be able to read a single chapter and then get to bed, even though every night I tried, I would still be reading quite literally three hours later. And it’s not just because there’s some big mystery that will be uncovered at the end, or some other device made only to string readers along to the final page. Rather, each step of the narrative is gripping in its own right, building from a tension-filled stay at a research center, to an examination of Eastern Germany during the Cold War, to the mental deterioration of the narrator—which ends up being more of an escalation than any sort of decline.
The story is broken up into these aforementioned three sections, respectively titled: “Wannsee,” “Zersetzung (Undermining),” and “An Apocalypse.” Throughout each section, Kunzru’s understanding of tone creates extremely beautiful and impactful moments. The first section begins with our unnamed narrator trying to rediscover his writerly voice. But the mood isn’t wishful or yearning; instead, the writing emphasizes the narrator’s uncertainty and confusion. These moody and uncomfortable feelings only intensify when his attempts lead him to a fellowship at the Deuter Center, a research center in Wannsee, Germany. He has to deal with vindictive and racist coworkers, his productivity is constantly being tracked to the point where cameras are seemingly in his bedroom, and his recurring walks along the lake continuously bring him to the grave of writer Heinrich von Kleist, who claimed that “no happiness was possible here on Earth” and then killed himself in a murder-suicide. With daily repetition of this routine from hell, the original sense of unease grows and grows, creating a monster that is both immeasurable in size yet unidentifiable in shape.
The second section is a self-contained mise en abyme, a story within a story. Our narrator connects with someone he meets at the Deuter Center who opens up about her experience growing up in East Berlin. The account is filled with secrets—secret jobs, secret police, secret lives. Although the narrative is disconnected from the rest of the story, it’s a perfect tonal bridge between the first and third sections. The sense of surveillance and paranoia that pervades the beginning is ratcheted up to obsession by the end of the nested story, and by the time you flip the page to “An Apocalypse,” it’s impossible to exorcise the paralyzing dread.
The last section not just runs with these emotions, it sprints with them. A cop show that the narrator binge-watches in the first section sparks a new direction in the plot, where meeting the show’s creator, Anton, snowballs into a cosmic battle of ideology. As the narrator grows increasingly obsessive and reclusive, signs of Anton are everywhere: online, in his workplace, and even in conversation with his colleagues. In many stories, it’s easy to write off characters’ experiences like this as clear fact or fiction. But Kunzru’s writing style and his choice in details create a sense of uncertainty, where it’s not just the narrator that feels like he’s going mad, but the reader as well.
It helps that Kunzru sets the novel against the backdrop of the buildup to the 2016 election, an event at the epicenter of conspiracies, fake news, and unrest that continue to pervade society today. In a lot of ways, it’s an exegesis of that event and everything that built up to it. Far-right ideology is an extremely destructive facet of our current political situation, but it’s an insidious one; it seeps into cultural norms and structure, and its dog whistles continue to get fainter and fainter. The story perfectly facilitates that feeling of how something can be clearly right there while also impossible to pin down. Near the end of the book, our narrator, dealing with doctors and medications to combat his spiral into paranoia, questions if his reaction is truly something that needs fixing. “But what if it isn’t? [italics added] What if the reasonable reaction is endless horrified screaming?” Through its choice in topic and the way it chooses to discuss it, Red Pill is the closest thing to a description of this indescribable wrongness present in our current society.
One thing less noticeable at first glance about Red Pill is how hilarious it is. The text is brimming with lines such as how wealthy patrons wearing foil emergency blankets are “cosplaying as refugees,” and a response to a literary question posed by a coworker is “the postmodernist version of spraying mace in his eyes.” One of my favorites is how the same coworker questioning him is his worst nightmare, literally—“several years earlier I had actually suffered from a recurring anxiety dream about being at a thesis defense, with a panel of sarcastic hectoring men … as the examiners.” The narrator’s jabs hit the perfect balance of dark, ironic, and extremely ridiculous, which is a helpful balance to the sheer terror and anxiety in the actual plot.
Red Pill is extremely adept at finding that kind of balance, not just asking difficult questions but exploring their answers as well. While discussing politics, I’ve often found it hard to explain why something like Trump is endemic to our society, why so many figureheads and movements across society are more worrisome than they seem. The book is, in a way, an answer to these questions. Its characters and events, while sinister, are plausible: an uncomfortable mirror to our own world. But more than that, Red Pill offers a way to grapple with this. It’s not that type of complaint that offers no real-world solutions; instead, its central themes revolve around love and community in spite of the hate that surrounds us. And by doing that, we break away from the society in Red Pill, toward something new, something hopefully less angry and paranoia-filled.
HARI KUNZRU is the author of five previous novels: White Tears, The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions, and Gods Without Men. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and his short stories and journalism have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Public Library, and the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Red Pill can be purchased here.