By Hari Kunzru
There are no actual red pills in “Red Pill,” not even a cherry cough drop. The title of this novel, for those of us who are hopelessly behind on our memes, refers to the process of discovery that the book’s unnamed narrator undergoes — or thinks he undergoes. The term comes from “The Matrix” (a film I found so intellectually vapid that I couldn’t finish watching, however brilliant its visuals), and has since gained currency with everyone from men’s rights groups to the alt-right to Elon Musk. Keanu Reeves’s character faces a choice: Take the blue pill and continue his happy illusory life, or the red one and see the world as it actually is, in all its dizzying, violent, chaotic glory.
The narrator of Hari Kunzru’s clever but exasperating sixth novel lives in cushioned Brooklyn safety, a progressive member of the creative classes, an essayist and teacher, a husband and a father. Yet he finds himself suffering from both writer’s block and a nameless dread, as though “something profoundly but subtly wrong” is about to happen in the world at large. Both conditions feed off each other, and make him believe that he’ll be unable to protect his family from any waiting malignity. He broods, and when he’s offered a fellowship at a Berlin think tank his wife is happy to see him go. Each longs for a few months of peace; each hopes that he’ll not only write something but also get his head straight.
The think tank is on the Wannsee, a lake to the west of the city center, and looks across the water to the villa where the Nazis planned the Holocaust; in his author’s note, Kunzru writes that he’s borrowed the location of the American Academy in Berlin, while imagining a completely different set of living conditions. Nothing there goes as planned, and the narrator quickly begins to see the study center as oppressive. The visiting scholars are required to foster community by working in a shared space and sitting in assigned seats at meals; he refuses to do any of it. Their productivity is logged, and he soon begins to believe that his room is being searched and his every movement monitored by hidden surveillance cameras. Eventually he confronts the center’s administration, and is then ordered to leave, well before his time is up.
“Red Pill” depends on Kunzru’s skilled use of a seemingly unreliable narrator. We have to believe that maybe he really is being watched; at the same time, we want to shake him into sense, and with each page he grows ever more puzzling. Just before leaving Berlin, the narrator has a chance meeting with a man called Anton, and uses the encounter to justify his fears. Anton is the showrunner of a “Shield”-like TV series about a bent nihilistic cop. They talk, head to a restaurant, and the narrator has the sense that the producer is about “to initiate me into a mystery, offer me the red pill.”
No such luck; Anton sees human life in terms of the “squeamishness” felt by those who aren’t tough enough for truth, and the narrator doesn’t have the right stuff. Indeed, the narrator soon believes he’s being laughed at, and later, unable to let his humiliation go, he starts to stalk the man on the web. That takes him into a territory of alt-right message boards and conspiracy theorists, a cyber kingdom in which Anton looks at home, and in fact appears to be posting under a variety of names.
The London-born Kunzru began his career with “The Impressionist” (2002), a sprawling historical novel about his father’s native India, but since then his fiction has often used the machinery of the thriller, with its secrets and hidden identities, as a way to explore the contemporary sense of the self. Kunzru’s work as a journalist, including two recent and indispensable essays in The New York Review of Books on the web-fueled rise of contemporary autocracy, shows he’s a shrewd and unsparing observer of recent politics. In these pieces and others, the generalized sense of dread that the narrator of “Red Pill” feels becomes all too specific, a dread to which names and causes are firmly attached and open for analysis.
I wish I could say the same for this novel. “Red Pill” comes most fully alive in a long middle section in which the narrator listens as one of the villa’s cleaning staff, a former East German punk rocker, describes her experience of Stasi persecution. That conversation stands in counterpoint to his own growing paranoia, his belief that he’s being watched and even persecuted by both the think tank’s administration and Anton too. But is he? And if so, why?
After leaving Berlin the narrator decides to pursue his obsession instead of going home. He checks into a small hotel in Paris and tries to work out just who the mysterious Anton is, what cause he speaks for and who is served by his cop show, “Blue Lives.” The narrator’s computer searches eventually start him off on a physical one, a ludicrous trip to an island off the coast of Scotland, where he sets up in a stone hut and sees himself as waiting for battle. After that, there’s a psychiatric hospital all ready to take him in.
Which would seem to solve the formal conundrum on which this book depends. Yet Kunzru has one final and overdetermined twist to offer. Back in Brooklyn the narrator tries to resume his old life, but he still wonders about what lies waiting out there in the dark, and the very end of the novel seems to give him an answer.
“Red Pill” closes in November 2016, with a party meant to celebrate the election of Hillary Clinton. I went to such a party myself, and remember the stomach-twisting hollowness I felt at the end of the evening. But as the conclusion to this novel it seems a bit obvious. As he watches the returns, the narrator sees something revelatory in a shot of a Trump victory party, something that convinces him that he was in fact right: There is some renewed malignity at loose in the world. Kunzru’s own journalism, however, will tell you much more about it than “Red Pill” does, and for all its technical skill the novel finally sings an old refrain: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.