"I think it is possible to track the onset of middle age exactly. It is the moment when you examine your life and instead of a field of possibility opening out, an increase in scope, you have a sense of waking from sleep or being washed up onshore, newly conscious of your surroundings.”
Conceptually, artistically, substantively, Hari Kunzru's Red Pill is unlike any book I've read before. The main character is an unnamed man whose midlife crisis spirals into a dangerous obsession with a cop show and its alt-right creator. His midlife crisis is the spur of the story - yet I felt that many of the narrator’s thoughts and worries could be that of a twenty-year-old.
The unnamed man views the world as being impossibly bleak. He’s worried about money, climate change, the Syrian refugee crisis, among other things– so much so, he writes, “I frequently found myself hunched over my laptop, my eyes welling with tears.” He’s falling into a mental abyss of his worries – and is sure that something inevitable is coming.
In an effort to shake it off, the narrator leaves his wife and child to head to a three-month writing residency at the Deuter Center in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, Germany to focus on writing his new book, but also to "come back to me happy" as his wife pleads.
This writing residency, and Germany in general, only exacerbates the narrator's crisis.
At the Deuter Center, "openness and transparency" is the policy and writers are encouraged to write in the common space and go to the common dining area. This bothers the narrator, who feels so sensitively the oppression of surveillance and wants nothing more than to write in his own room. But the time spent in the common areas is literally monitored and the narrator is told that if he doesn't adhere to the contract he signed (and didn't read), he should leave.
The narrator carries on eating meals away from the Center, taking walks along Heinrich von Kleist's grave (a German novelist who committed a murder-suicide), and staying holed up in his room. He becomes obsessed with a cop show called Blue Lives.
Most signs point to a narrator who shouldn't be obsessed with a cop show nor its fringe creator. What do we know about the narrator? We know that he lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife of five years, Rei, an immigration attorney, and his three-year-old daughter, Nina. We know that he is an author and an academic with a doctorate from Columbia University and an adjunct position in the Creative Writing Department.
We know that he wanted to write a book about the "revolutionary potential of the arts" but then lost steam and wrote something else just to get published. We know he's a person of color - his mother English and his father Indian. We know that he's generally a secular, liberal Democrat who is worried about the world and wants things good again.
But we also know the main character is going through a midlife crisis, the realization that "you are traveling on a gentle downward slope into darkness," and this makes him vulnerable.
What makes the book gold is how the narrator's interest in the show starts from being casual ("When I started watching, the horror of this world had felt safely abstract, so removed from my own life that I could take pleasure in the melodramatic storyline") to horrifyingly addicting ("My mind crackled with images of home invasion, of masked gangsters and terrified children.")
I also don't think it's an accident that in the two storylines featured in the show Blue Lives, the main perpetrators are Black. Kunzru is trying to suggest something about how these shows work to keep us in subconscious, perpetual fear of other humans.
I truly believe that if true crime and cop shows had less of a grip on our society, it'd be easier to abolish the death penalty. But I also think it's possible to like these shows without it compromising your belief system the way it does for the narrator.
At a party in Berlin, the narrator meets the creator of the Blue Lives show, Anton. Long story short, he’s a white supremacist. Anton takes the narrator out to dinner to explain his ideas - which are simultaneously boring and highly triggering. It's unclear if the narrator is more obsessed with proving Anton wrong or truly believes what he says - but the narrator is so shaken, he calls his wife to ask why she believes in human rights to remind himself. The manic decline that follows is tough to watch – the narrator stakes out Anton, looking for more opportunities to confront him.
The narrator does come back from his obsession but incompletely. He still feels, even more strongly, that he is always being watched and that he is in a simulation. Something about the world is still off – cemented when the narrator’s family and friends watch Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The book seems to suggest that maybe the narrator was right all along to sense an imperceptible shift in the world.
At times the writing was a tad too esoteric for my liking. Yet, I genuinely enjoyed this book and would rank it in my personal top ten of 2020 - definitely above When No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole and The Perfect Life of Miwako Sumida by Clarissa Goenawan but definitely under The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi and The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa.
I do not recommend this book - not every book I enjoy would I recommend. On top of British authors generally having a very unrelenting style of writing (lol), this book is very triggering in its discussion of white supremacist subcultures. Many times while reading, my heart would race out of anger for the things the characters said in the book. Hari Kunzru's writing generally pushes the envelope, and readers of his other book White Tears understand this, but Red Pill takes it to another level. Yet, I still think this book illustrates so importantly how political events can alter our psychological states.