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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru
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Red Pill (original 2020; edition 2021)

by Hari Kunzru (Author)

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3341578,214 (3.58)17
"After receiving a prestigious writing fellowship in Germany, the narrator of Red Pill arrives in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee and struggles to accomplish anything at all. Instead of working on the book he has proposed to write, he takes long walks and binge-watches "Blue Lives"--a violent cop show that becomes weirdly compelling in its bleak, Darwinian view of life--and soon begins to wonder if his writing has any value at all. Wannsee is a place full of ghosts: across the lake the narrator can see the villa where the Nazis planned the Final Solution, and in his walks he passes the grave of the Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, who killed himself after deciding that "no happiness was possible here on earth." When some friends drag him to a party where he meets Anton, the creator of "Blue Lives," the narrator begins to believe that the two of them are involved in a cosmic battle, and that Anton is "red-pilling" his viewers--turning them towards an ugly, alt-rightish worldview--ultimately forcing the narrator to wonder if he is losing his mind"--… (more)
Member:maxhumphries
Title:Red Pill
Authors:Hari Kunzru (Author)
Info:Scribner UK (2021), Edition: 1, 304 pages
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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru (2020)

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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
Irving Kristol once semi-famously said that a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality. In Kunzru's Red Pill, the narrator is a liberal mugged by existential crisis, and the reader has to wonder if he's found any better answer to the challenge than Kristol's unfortunate liberal.

The narrator's crisis is essentially a crisis of Enlightenment and liberal values. On the one hand they are assailed by new knowledge in fields like neurochemistry, which argue that humans are nothing but neurons and chemical impulses. Just bits of matter, protons and electrons. If this is so, what gives humans any particular value? "Why do you believe in human rights?" the narrator urgently asks his wife, a human rights lawyer, at one point. "Isn't it just a fiction, though? Just something we tell ourselves? If we still believed in the soul, maybe." Her answer, "We're human. That's enough" is not close to enough.

On the other hand is something old and ancient: the human will to power, and the irrationality and bloodshed that marks human history. The narrator sees the rising again of an irrational tide that threatens the placid and rational reality everyone around him believes they are living in. This is specifically embodied by the rise of the alt-right in politics, which the narrator becomes obsessed with, though it's only a part of what he fears:
This was a problem between us, Rei's faith in the democratic process, in the Democratic Party, in the essential reasonableness of the world. To me, the presidential election later that year was only a small part of what I feared. The shift was bigger... I saw nothing reasonable about what was coming. Nothing reasonable at all.

When the narrator runs into Anton, a fictionalized Steve Bannon, at a party of the rich and famous he's invited to by some acquaintances, he comes to believe he can resolve his crisis and save humanity and his family by defeating Anton in a final showdown that he is mysteriously being led to. Kunzru's hallucinatory digression mirrors what he did in his previous novel White Tears, though it feels more coherent here.

Our narrator's mental breakdown is brought to a sort of conclusion, however, not by a confrontation with Anton but by a stay in a mental hospital. Upon his release back to his family and social circle, which carries on in its "end of history" style complacency and incomprehension of his crisis, he sees a therapist and works to say the right things, but she is like everyone else with an unjustified faith in the victory of human rationality, and he tries to just shove down his worries.

The philosophy of Joseph de Maistre occupies a central role in the novel. Maistre, who was active in the time immediately following the French Revolution, believed that an evil in the world led to a never-ending procession of human bloodshed and violence, and that a rational attempt at government inevitably lead to unresolvable disagreement and competing claims of illegitimacy, giving rise to violence and chaos. Anton superficially adopts Maistre's philosophy, while the narrator is deeply disturbed by it.

To escape what he saw as the bleakness of the human condition, Maistre believed in God and a divinely ordered ultimate plan of redemption (a part of his philosophy Anton ignores). The narrator doesn't have access to this relief however; when Anton asks him if he's a Christian, admitting that Christianity does present a legitimate objection to his power obsessed worldview, he says no (modern scientific materialism has taken care of that, after all), marking himself as a "typical liberal" in Anton's eyes.

Kunzru doesn't end up offering the narrator much, in my opinion, in compensation with which to counter the existential darkness he faces. "It's not much, but I can say that the most precious part of me isn't my individuality, my luxurious personhood, but the web of reciprocity in which I live my life... Alone, we are food for the wolves. That's how they want us. Isolated. Prey. So we must find each other. We must remember that we do not exist alone", Kunzru writes in the novel's conclusion.

So, community and meaningful relationships. But the narrator had that at the start of the novel. It wasn't enough to answer. ( )
  lelandleslie | Feb 24, 2024 |
First "literary" book I have read in a while and really enjoyed. Funny and went in unexpected direction that is a perfect fit for today. The reconciliation with his wife was the only part that I skimmed. ( )
  Mcdede | Jul 19, 2023 |
I wish a book about the intersection of mental illness and the appeal of the conservative movement would at least advance a thesis, though I may just be too dense to understand it.

I do wonder how much Kunzru overestimates the intelligence of even the intellectuals of the "red pill" movement. For my own thesis, I'd advance that compassion, empathy, and intelligence are most often linked, and that sociopaths tend to out themselves as intellectual vacant at even a micron's depth. This isn't to say they can't do incalculable damage in the meantime, but generally, when anti-humanist creators start showing their true colors they are marginalized (much to their chagrin and accompanied by shouts of censorship). Or at least, I hope that's still the case - that this story takes place in the summer of 2016 is not a coincidence, obviously.

The novel only really comes alive in a brief middle section detailing the tragic fall of an East German punk rocker to skiitish cleaning lady, the emotionally destructive power of surveillance, and the willingness of anybody with even a little bit of power to abuse the hell out of it and the people over whom that power can be exercised. In the weeks since I finished the novel, I've thought more about that section than the entire rest of the book combined. ( )
  danieljensen | May 25, 2023 |
At the start of the novel, the unnamed protagonist of Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill admits that he is going through a mid-life crisis. He is a moderately successful academic and writer, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife Rei, a human rights lawyer, and their three-year-old girl. Yet he feels unfulfilled and increasingly anxious about the state of the world. This continuous state of anxiety places a burden on his marriage and saps his creativity. Then the opportunity arises for him to spend a few months at the Deuter Centre, situated on the Wannsee in Berlin. This could be a perfect opportunity for him to reboot. Rei actively encourages him to spend a few months away from home – provided he comes back ‘whole’.

The Deuter Centre, however, turns out to be quite different from what he expects. The Centre is situated close to the villa where, at the “Wannsee Conference” Reinhard Heydrich outlined his nefarious “final solution to the Jewish question”. And although the ideals of the Deuter Centre, founded by an ex-Wehrmacht general, appear to be in direct opposition to Nazi-Fascist thought, the Centre’s “forced” communal approach and disturbing surveillance measures are not worlds away from the strictures of an extremist regime.

The narrator’s sense of oppression grows and turns into paranoia. Even as he works on a treatise on the “lyric I” in German Romantic literature, he increasingly questions not only his own self, but also the very basis of the value we give to human life and human dignity. Things come to a head when the narrator makes the acquaintance of Anton, a film director who has gained notoriety for a violent cop series airing on German TV. The narrator is horrified but not too surprised to discover that Anton is a leading figure of the alt-right. Through him, the narrator discovers a subversive hostile culture that plans to dominate the world in increasingly unsubtle ways. As the narrator’s sanity unravels, he believes himself to be in a personal battle with Anton and all he represents. But is this all just paranoia or is truth closer to a nightmare than we are ready to admit? There are certainly some autobiographical touches in the novel which suggest that the narrator’s fears are not that far-fetched.

On his arrival at Wannsee, the narrator, almost literally, stumbles upon the grave of Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist, one of the exponents of the German Romantic movement, was hugely influence by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant which he came across in 1801. This shaped Kleist’s subsequent literary career, but also cast a tragic shadow upon his life. In fact, Kleist interpreted Kant’s view as implying the impossibility of ever establishing an objective truth. This led him into the dark alleys of an existential crisis from which he never fully recovered. He would eventually die by his own hand, in a murder-suicide planned with Henriette Vogel.

Kleist looms large in the novel and, indeed, the vicissitudes of his life could be the key to understanding the predicament of the narrator. Kleist’s unhappiness at his lot could, at one level, be deemed to be a pathological condition – the narrator himself, at one stage, floats a theory that Kleist suffered from PTSD. But there is no denying that Kleist’s crisis was also an existential one, born out of a legitimate philosophical concern.

The same could be said of the narrator’s crisis which is not only pathological but also an existential one. More importantly, it is possibly a crisis which all men of goodwill should be going through at the moment. Faced with inequalities, injustice, human suffering, the refugee crisis, the trampling of fundamental freedoms and the resurgence of the far-right, can we really discount the narrator’s fears as mere paranoia?

“Red Pill” invites discussion not just thanks to its subject matter, but also through its approach. Although, at first glance, the narrative appears a relatively linear one, the novel becomes exhilaratingly complex thanks to its riot of cultural references. The nods to German history and 19th century Romanticism are clear, but its web of associations draws into it some other unlikely bedfellows. Thus “Red Pill” of the title is specifically alluded to only once in the text – but that is enough to link it to the choice between the “blue pill” of blissful ignorance and the “red pill” of truth mentioned in the movie “The Matrix”. And besides that, there are more abstruse references to political philosophy and figures of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. I would be comfortable describing this as a “novel of ideas”, but it could equally be considered a psychological thriller, an adventure story, a romance or, even, a dark comedy. And, as a lover of the Gothic, I could not help also perceiving echoes of the German Romantic sub-genre of the “secret society novel”, variously referred to as the Bundesroman or the Gehimbundroman. This reference is suggested by the narrator’s increasingly feverish research into the “dark web” and the far-right groups which haunt it – an aspect of the book which reminded me also of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Numero Zero.

Admittedly, the plethora of meta-levels sometimes make the novel seem unfocussed. In particular, I have in mind the segment of the book describing the experiences of Monika (the Deuter Centre’s cleaner) under the GDR. Taken on its own, it makes for a harrowing and moving read. It also fits in well with the narrator’s concern about the “surveillance regime” adopted at the Centre. In the context of the whole book, however, the need for it is not too clear. Perhaps Kunzru’s idea is to show us that danger of extremism is not limited to the right end of the political spectrum. But then again, the novel neither invites nor provides clear answers, and is so much the better for it.

https://endsoftheword.blogspot.com/2020/03/red-pill-by-hari-kunzru.html ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Feb 21, 2023 |
This was a difficult book to read. I've enjoyed reading two of his previous books and looked forward to this one. I was not prepared for this one. For the first hundred pages it was truly unclear where this was going. There was no mention of a Red Pill or even a pill of any color. The main character was a writer who came to Germany on a Fellowship at the Deuter Institute in Wannsee. He theoretically wanted to explore the role of epic poetry in society. Clearly a topic of limited interest beyond an intellectual elite. But his interest in the fascist past of the area and its role in tragic events of the past begins to capture his attention. He increasingly finds the Institute stifling and begins watching a dark TV series which attracts him with allusions to epic poems with dark predictions.



Slowly it becomes clear he's having a psychotic breakdown. At this point I'm seriously questioning why am I reading this. This is not what I would choose to read about. It gets worse. He links up with the creator of the dark TV series who manages to make him persona non grata at the Institute. The Institute asks him to leave. He is reluctant return to his wife and child in NYC . To get back at his antagonist our "hero" begins to stalk his nemesis to Paris and even to a remote island in Scotland. As he gets closer to committing suicide he is pulled back by policemen who his wife has alerted to seek him out, not knowing where he has disappeared to but as someone in danger of hurting himself. He is brought back to NYC and committed to a Psych ward where he is medicated and restrained. He slowly gains some control over himself. His wife is still afraid he may harm her or their daughter and his presence is tolerated rather than embraced. He sees a therapist from whom he hides some of the secrets he still holds on to. Slowly he gains the confidence of his wife and it appears they may eventually reestablish their relationship. But then it's election night 2016 and like everyone else they expect to be celebrating Clinton's historic victory. But the night becomes a nightmare and it looks like what he was fighting has now become the country's problem. End of story. An interesting twist but my main feeling was I'm glad to move on to reading something more interesting. ( )
  Ed_Schneider | Nov 10, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
If we judge a novel based on how it addresses the current moment, then Hari Kunzru seems to have published his last two books out of order. White Tears, released back in 2017, is a ghost story that interrogates America’s historical (and current) exploitation of Black musicians with a message about the systemic racism that resonates with the Black Lives Matter movement and the global protests against police violence. In contrast, Red Pill is a nihilistic novel about the culture wars, white nationalism, and populist Presidents that feels more in keeping with the Charlottesville march, the “Dark Web,” and Pepe the Frog memes....Red Pill is hit-and-miss when it comes to examining the West’s abrupt lurch to the far right. Our pro­tagonist has the distinct texture of a straw man: the liberal academic, deeply insecure about his work, but unaware of the world around him or how rapidly it’s changing. A man so insular, so blinkered, that the moment he’s exposed to overt examples of white supremacy and fascism his sense of self breaks apart, abandoning his family on the weakest of pretenses....Although the concerns discussed in Red Pill may seem like the least of our problems, it does come out a month before the November 2020 election, and at least here it acts as a reminder of what’s at stake when we eventually move beyond the seemingly endless horizon of the pandemic.
added by Lemeritus | editLocus, Ian Mond (Oct 22, 2020)
 
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.... “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.... “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.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times, Michael Gorra (pay site) (Sep 1, 2020)
 
Kunzru’s powerful latest (after White Tears) follows an unnamed Brooklyn writer who lands in Berlin for a fellowship at the Deuter Center in 2016. What’s supposed to be a writing retreat and a way to get past the creative block he was experiencing amid a midlife crisis, however, soon turns into an escalating disaster.... Kunzru’s powerful latest (after White Tears) follows an unnamed Brooklyn writer who lands in Berlin for a fellowship at the Deuter Center in 2016. What’s supposed to be a writing retreat and a way to get past the creative block he was experiencing amid a midlife crisis, however, soon turns into an escalating disaster.
added by Lemeritus | editPublisher's Weekly (Aug 11, 2020)
 
Much like Kunzru’s excellent White Tears (2017), this novel features a lead character stumbling into confrontations about race and society he’s ill-prepared to handle. The unnamed narrator is a Brooklyn creative-writing teacher and essayist struggling to write a book on the self in literature....Plotwise, the novel is clunky, slow to establish the narrator’s character and awkwardly introducing Anton into the narrative; a lengthy section featuring a Deuter Center housecleaner’s experience being manipulated by the Stasi is razor-sharp in itself but effectively a sidebar to the main story. Yet as an allegory about how well-meaning liberals have been blindsided by pseudo-intellectual bigots with substantial platforms, it’s bleak but compelling. Our intellectual freedom, Kunzru writes, “is shrinking, its scope reduced by technologies of prediction and control, by social media’s sinister injunction to share.” This novel, in all its disorder, represents some worthy and spirited push back.
“Kafkaesque” is an overused term, but it’s an apt one for this dark tale of fear and injustice.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Reviews (Jun 16, 2020)
 

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My only, my highest goal has been brought low. . . . No truth is discoverable here on earth.
—Heinrich von Kleist, letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge, 22 March 1801
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For Katie, Ryu, and Mila
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I think it is possible to track the onset of middle age exactly.
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"After receiving a prestigious writing fellowship in Germany, the narrator of Red Pill arrives in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee and struggles to accomplish anything at all. Instead of working on the book he has proposed to write, he takes long walks and binge-watches "Blue Lives"--a violent cop show that becomes weirdly compelling in its bleak, Darwinian view of life--and soon begins to wonder if his writing has any value at all. Wannsee is a place full of ghosts: across the lake the narrator can see the villa where the Nazis planned the Final Solution, and in his walks he passes the grave of the Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, who killed himself after deciding that "no happiness was possible here on earth." When some friends drag him to a party where he meets Anton, the creator of "Blue Lives," the narrator begins to believe that the two of them are involved in a cosmic battle, and that Anton is "red-pilling" his viewers--turning them towards an ugly, alt-rightish worldview--ultimately forcing the narrator to wonder if he is losing his mind"--

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