For his sixth novel, Hari Kunzru posits a line between sanity and madness so tenuous, the slightest nudge from a malevolent actor can send someone hurtling into the mental abyss.
A modestly successful but self-doubting author accepts a fellowship at a liberal writers’ centre in Wannsee, an outer suburb of Berlin. Here, the past stalks the present. The 19th-century poet Heinrich von Kleist shot himself and a female friend by the river because “no happiness is possible on earth”. This is where the Nazis devised the Final Solution and where Syrian refugees now rifle through supermarket bins to feed their children.
Annoyed that he is expected to work in an open-plan office, and unable to write at all, the protagonist trudges aimlessly in the snow only to find himself ominously drawn to Kleist’s river. His behaviour drifts from odd to suspicious. The writers’ centre resents his requests for privacy and he suspects they are spying on him. Hiding in his room, he binges on the nihilistic police drama Blue Lives, where savage, lawless cops break the fourth wall to recite obscure poems about the futility of resisting power and violence.
Or do they? Kunzru tests our faith in our own perceptions by refusing to let the reader in on the full story. We can see soon enough that our petulant narrator is unreliable as well as unnamed, but we know as little as he does about exactly where he loses his grip on reality to become “a spy in the house of the sane”. A chance meeting with Anton, the fascist creator of Blue Lives, leaves the narrator convinced Anton is priming the world for an unbearable future and that he must stop him. This conviction compels him to abandon his exasperated wife and their daughter in New York for the Scottish coast, where Anton awaits him. Or so he thinks.
An absurdly gifted writer, Kunzru imbues throwaway contemporary memes with rich historical context. With the term “red pill” being so thoroughly corrupted by misogynists who (mis)use it to denote their rejection of feminism, it is pleasing to see its use here more aligned with its original ethos in the science-fiction blockbuster The Matrix. However, rather than rousing us to save the world from tyranny, Red Pill seems to offer the concept as a metaphor for abandoning it altogether. To take the red pill is, perhaps, not only to reject ignorance but also to embrace the comforts of madness. Is “endless horrified screaming” the only logical response to a world as endlessly cruel as ours? Just when I’m convinced of the book’s thesis, I wonder if Kunzru isn’t simply toying with me the way Anton does with the narrator, daring me to succumb to such a bleak view of humanity.
Scribner, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 7, 2020 as "Hari Kunzru, Red Pill".
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