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Hari Kunzru. Colour pencil portrait by Cain S. Pinto.

Review: Hari Kunzru (2019) Red Pill. Knopf.

Rating: 2.5/5

Hari Kunzru’s (2019) Red Pill is a serious, if frail, attempt to trap in fictional amber the zeitgeist animating a resurgence of right wing authoritarianism in the Anglosphere. The plot follows an unnamed American narrator—a middle-aged freelance writer who’s won a writing fellowship—through Berlin, Paris, and the Scottish Highlands as he is pursued and tormented by a cop drama writer, the croaking of Twitter frogs, and the incantations of meme magicians in his head. It is a breakdown novel; a bildungsroman in reverse. Whereas the narrator begins his career in the narrative addressing his impending mid-life crisis with a bracing effort at writing a serious tome on “the self in lyric poetry” (p.17), he ends up “therapized and involuntarily detained” (p.233) as the load bearing structures of his “luxurious personhood” (p.235) give way under the weight of real and imagined casualties in the culture wars.   

Red Pill contains acute observations about political polarization accelerated by social media, and irenic commentary on the logomachy of shitposters versus earnest and loquacious humanists given to quoting German romantic thinkers. It portrays a world peopled by deftly crafted archetypes that do exactly what is expected. Even so, the humanely painted characters fail to make much happen in their lives or the narrative given the soaring ambition of the novel and relative sparsity of the plot. 

Fellow Deuter Center fellowship winner Edgar is an analogue of the cringey naturalist who believes your cries of pain are just epiphenomena generated by neurochemicals and so you should shove it. An outspoken free speech advocate and mansplainer extraordinaire, Edgar promptly  subjects to “verbal mauling” (p.86) anyone who evinces hesitancy towards, or, god forbid, disagreement with his global reductive naturalism. Of course, the world the narrator despises and which, reciprocally, fails him rewards Edgar with a publishing deal for his brick-sized screed “Wrongthink: The Authoritarian Left and the New Religion of Social Justice,” which The Wall Street Journal favourably reviews as “[a] must read” (p.225). Monika, a cleaner at the Deuter Center, is a free-spirited woman who in spite, or because, of her humble origins in a loveless and low socioeconomic status family in East Germany—“[a] whole country reeking of piss and schnapps and cabbage soup” (p.95)—has the right sort of idea about the role and scope of government in public life. As a bon viveur on a budget, working a menial job at a textile factory and living in a hostel in a repressive state, of course, she had in her youth “hacked off her hair, dyed the tufts with watercolours and spiked them up with soap” (p.98) and become a drummer in a punk band. This anti-authoritarian glow up, as can be expected, drove Stasi agents mad and led them to implicate her in false charges which could only be avoided by becoming their stool pigeon. Nevertheless, she persisted in her rebellion by giving “as little information to her handlers as she [can]” (p.118). Ultimately, when the GDR collapsed, Monika escaped into an ordinary life as a cleaner while her bandmate Katja newly revealed to have been a “highly motivated” agent “committed to the cause of socialism” (p.122) all along grew fat, bred animals for pet shops, expressed no remorse for her past, and committed suicide.

Anton the suave jet-setting writer of a successful cop drama [Blue Lives] who is covertly a white supremacist, reads high culture German romantic thinkers, detests Frankfurt school cultural Marxists, and finds the time to create and spread memes Kunzru’s ideal reader will quickly recognize and bin into the rVtRN tO tRaDiTioN and wHiCh wAy, wEstERn MAn? categories. With these many demanding hobbies pursued alongside his high profile occupation Anton is incontrovertibly an impressive, Daedalus like, figure. He’s a dynamo whose hard hitting cop drama is immensely popular, and he’s giving talks when he isn’t chasing the narrator as a phantom embodying the CEO of Racism, Eugenics, and Closed Borders, Ltd. The narrator isn’t a fan of the show but Anton lives “rent free” in his head (p.155) because he thinks Anton is overcoding the otherwise generic material with esoteric implications that bespeak a world in which the average audience member would be a fungible piece of property in the hands of a “cognitive elite” (p.175). When the effete narrator raises this point to Anton as a gotcha at a public event, Anton glibly responds “I’m sorry it gives you sad feels, but I think it’s how it’s going to be.” One is put in mind of the Yes Chad meme with the narrator on the left and Anton on the right. Kunzru is clever and modest enough to recognize that his protagonist would be readily, and appropriately so, categorized as a Soyjak with his “eyes wide” and his “mouth hanging open in an idiotic ‘o’” of outrage (p.182) and has Anton-adjacent groypers depict him that way in a meme.

In a sentimental meditation towards the end the protagonist observes:

“Maybe I am one of the last people in history who will feel the things I do. Maybe everything I hoped about the world, and hoped to bring about in it, is doomed to fail. Instead of learning useful things, I have filled my brain with obsolete philosophies, ideas with no more purchase or veracity than the four humors or spontaneous generation. I could say I regret it all, the useless information, but what would be the point? It’s too late now. These are the elements that make me who I am. Even if I am absurd, and instead of reading novels and philosophy books I should have learned to code or short-sell or strip and rebuild an AR-15, I still have the love I feel…” (p.234-5).

In a preceding sequence of events eerily mirroring the rustic roleplaying of Heidegger, arch amphibolist and decorated philosopher of the Reich, meditating on Being with a capital B in his forest cabin Kunzru ably parodies that feeble mode of thought by having his protagonist perform some schizotypal Big Thinks in an abandoned bothy; where he is subsequently arrested and sent to a mental health facility. Dreamers like Kunzru’s protagonist, as he seems to concede, end up being shown to be Soyjaks to the Chad Antons of the world; and, their best chance to remain somewhat functional in society consists in staying on their medications and not dyeing their hair neon. There is no redemption in this narrative arc, which is perfectly fine. The tragic hero is a staple of literature in general and breakdown novels in particular. The problem here is that there is nothing heroic about the protagonist, and his sensitivity to various injustices real and imagined only serves to heighten his ineffectuality and decadence. The reader is apprised of the narrator’s clear understanding of the impossibility of victory against the rising tide of a culture that has jettisoned the values he prizes; because he is afraid of losing the culture wars as well as the petty squabbles on social media he is content to limit himself to freelance writing “distracted essays” (p.15). Essentially, the narrator is a sad sack. One can only imagine Sisyphus happy secure in the knowledge that he has committed to accomplishing the impossible. The narrator by contrast has already decided it is impossible to win even a flame war, let alone the culture wars. There is no tragedy and no hero here; consequently, it is impossible to maintain that the narrator is a tragic hero. 

The absence of a hero and of tragedy in the book brings one to the unrealised possibilities implicit in the title: Red Pill. Introduced in the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix the red pill is a mysterious medicine, here a body of esoteric knowledge inaccessible to the uninitiated or normies, which when metabolized grants you the power to see the common sense view of the world as being based on lies protecting entrenched elite interests. Its pharmaceutical or epistemological counterpart, if you will, is the blue pill which allows you to continue dwelling in the consensus reality with which you are well acquainted. The sense in which the red pill concept is used in the novel to talk about political and cultural issues was first introduced in 2007 by Curtis Yarvin, under the nom de guerre Mencius Moldbug. The views Anton articulates in Red Pill are not only compatible with, but also substantially overlap those espoused by Moldbug. They agree that democracy is overrated, and should be abolished in favour of a dictatorship in which a fuhrer of sorts operates like the CEO of the nation and cognitive elites, or epistocrats, operate as shareholders. They’re also both proponents of closed borders, slavery for those unfit to thrive, and believe genetic differences  between different ethnic populations explain racial achievement gaps. Presumably, the narrator is a champion of the blue pill and is antipathetic to every Antonian/Moldbuggian recommendation about politics and culture. This puts him in comfortable conformity with the mainstream view of things; the liberal consensus. Yet, the ghoulish Anton and Moldbug are remarkably more functional, successful, and charismatic individuals. Not only is the narrator not a hero, he is a pathetic loser. 

Even the benevolent liberal consensus he cherishes as the highest achievement of humankind downstream from German romantic thought sees it fit to medicate and put him under supervision. Thus, we have the ironic situation where the champion of a beautiful and just liberal order is a revolting specimen of premature decrepitude and self-satisfied failure. The role of the aesthetic, the redemptive power of art, which the narrator wants to write about but cannot bring himself to, is on his own view to allow us to see how people wearing “We Only Love Family” t-shirts can be brought to understand and adopt a “wider and more expansive kind of love” (p.235). When he fails, he fails the aesthetic object. His inabilities infect the sublime ideal he cannot even bring himself to write about, let alone write persuasively. His failure is not the problem, but his making peace with it is. In a better novel this loss of the fundamentally decent to the vagaries of time and chance would’ve been less pathetic, perhaps even galvanizing. In the novel as it is, however, one sees that the world is unfair but delights in the abasement of the Soyjak. Read it for the lyrical prose, and abandon all hope if you yearn to see neoreaction effectively satirised. It is deserving of a respectable 2.5/5.

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