Review – Kunzru, “Red Pill”

Hari Kunzru, “Red Pill” (2020) (narrated by the author) – Well, well! This one inspired many thoughts and feelings in me. More of them, written down, are derogatory-sounding than this book deserves. In that respect it reminds me of another, somewhat similar book, Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School.” Maybe I don’t have it in me to straightforwardly praise contemporary literary fiction (maybe I just don’t have practice!). In particular, anything that treads the waters of “what the fuck is happening/rise of fascism” is going to bring up a lot of weird stuff for most anyone who reads them, especially if they don’t follow some predictable line (“love wins”).

I thought, maybe four fifths through listening to this book, that maybe Kunzru was verging towards a predictable line, after all. But I guess I should say what happens in this book a little before going into that! We’ve got an unnamed narrator, a South Asian British man living in Brooklyn, early middle age, wife and kid, a freelance writer of cultural criticism, maybe a cut above the NPR type, call it the N+1 type, and let’s go ahead and call our narrator “Hari.” Hari is feeling weltschmerz but wins a fellowship to do some study in Germany. Off he goes, promising his wife that he’ll return with a book manuscript on “the poetic I” and a head free of angst. 

Well, naturally, the fellowship is not all it seems. It was founded by some ex-Wehrmacht Christian Democrat industrialist with funny ideas, that entail Hari having to do a bunch of shit he’d rather not: work in an open plan office and eat meals with fellow fellows, most notably an obnoxious evopsych professor. I gotta say, it’s pretty funny that Hari’s nightmare is basically what office workers like me take for granted: a cubicle, supervision, meals eaten with people not your choosing (I will say my employer isn’t so bad about the latter). Does Kunzru get that? Probably, though whether he “groks” it… 

Anyway! Things get increasingly sinister. Among other things, the fellowship center is smack in the middle of the Berlin neighborhood of Wannsee. Wannsee, of course, is best known for the Wannsee Conference, called by Reinhard Heydrich to plan the logistics of the “final solution.” It was also a sort of fashionable vacation spot (back then, any crappy old lake — like the “see” in Wannsee — a short-ish distance from a city was a destination) for romantic poets like Heinrich von Kleist, a spicy type Hari is studying for his project. Von Kleist shot a lady friend and then himself around the lake. Bad vibes! Hari walks around and around the lake. It’s winter in Berlin. His book isn’t getting anywhere.

Where can Hari take refuge other than in streaming TV? He obsessively watches a cop show — I imagine it being a lot like “The Shield” except maybe with Dolph Lundgren in the main role — marked by extreme violence and occasional apostrophes to the viewership in the form of speeches Hari realizes are drawn from reactionary philosophers of the past: Emil Cioran, Joseph de Maistre, the like. It’s all stuff about how life is a pointless bloodbath, etc etc. 

Things really take a turn, as they so often do, when the internet goes down. Hari tries to get it fixed but the IT guy is probably in the altright and they’re probably also watching all the fellows when they sleep (or is Hari having a breakdown?). Plus also those dang German ordoliberals with their ironclad fellowship contract are probably cutting off his internet because they can see he’s not doing enough work! Fuck!! He’s gotta get to the bottom of this!

Hari does not for a good gentleman detective make. He tries to get one of the cleaning ladies to tell him stuff. She tells him a long story about how she was a punk in East Germany, was stalked and mind-fucked by a stasi officer into being an informant on the scene, and also had a very shitty post-reunification life, as did most of the people involved in her story. All that, and she doesn’t drop any useful hints! She just gets mad at Hari! Can it get any worse?

A cool black gay guy at the fellowship invites Hari out to a charity gala for refugees and things can, indeed, get worse. Hari, disgusted by the money and obviously fake concern on display, tries to help out a refugee and his daughter who he sees on the street and botches the approach. He goes back to the gala and meets Anton, the dude who makes the cop show, and asks him about all the weird quotes. 

Insofar as all the dread Kunzru builds up has a payoff, it is in the antagonism between Hari and Anton. Anton is a Nazi, or anyway, a nihilist who sees that the premises of Nazism and reactionary ideology more generally is the way towards his preferred social order- the strong ruling over the weak, and getting to caper and shout and be worshipped while doing so (you get the impression, in this book and elsewhere, that it’s the capering these people really want, and I guess a redefinition of “strength” and the ruling privileges that go with it towards parameters more amenable to themselves). And — and here it’s worth noting that while this book was published in 2020, it takes place in 2015 and 2016, the lead up to Trump’s win in the election — he owns Hari pretty good. Invites him out with his Nazi pals, makes fun of him, doesn’t leave many holes that someone of Hari’s intellectual background can exploit (I saw plenty — he’s a precious little fellow, Anton, with his undercut and his elaborate joke of going to a kebab place and not eating, and anything precious is delicate — but of course my circumstances are different). Then Anton and a Nazi friend show up at the fellowship center, do some Nazi troll shit, and get Hari booted! 

The dynamic, here, is that Hari is the sort of ineffectual left-leaning intellectual, pondering poetry in abstruse little journals, that right-wing man’s men who don’t care about anything, man, can walk right over. Well- that is, certainly, a thing in the world! One of the feelings I felt while reading this is a familiar one I’ve never put a name to (perhaps the Germans have a word). It’s a feeling of almost seeing my perspective in someone else, or my circumstances, but also missing it by a mile. I’m a leftist intellectual worried about a rising tide of reactionary violence as crises converge. But like… I also don’t fetishize my own helplessness, as Hari does, as a fair few leftists and liberals I know have, and do. I don’t “forget about” fascists, the way “sensible” liberals and moderates would have me do- there, Hari and I agree. But my version of living my values entails being able to do something about them in the world, as best one can.

The world — the pre-1945 world, the world of the Cold War, the prefiguring of the crises of the 21st century that the altright represents — crashes in on Hari, in a personal and offensive way. To Kunzru’s credit, he does not linger long on the Brooklyn world that tears like tissue paper once Hari is expected to work under normal circumstances and then meets a troll. He doesn’t wallow in its fecklessness, just let’s a few features — Hari’s wife’s work for the Hillary Clinton campaign, a few cultural markers, mostly Hari’s utter inability to cope — do the work for him. Interestingly, he doesn’t altogether crumble in the face of the world… or, well, maybe he does. In all likelihood he has a paranoid break with reality. He becomes obsessed with Anton, stalks his online circle (how many of which are just Anton-bots, replicating his posts?), and basically comes to conceive, saying outright at least once, that Anton is the Moriarty to Hari’s Holmes. He thinks Anton leaves breadcrumb clues to find Anton on an island off the coast of Scotland. Hari acts weird there, with a knife, and gets arrested. His wife and brother find him, put him on a plane back home, have him committed for a while, and then he returns home to a tentative, painful peace. Then Trump gets elected!

When I say that Hari doesn’t completely come undone, I mean that at least he does something. He doesn’t do something smart. But given that the failure mode that defined his existence so far was inaction, going to confront the symbol he created for the dread he felt — a dread I hold he is right to feel — seems… like a step in the right direction? I don’t know, isn’t facing fear a good thing? 

And that’s what I mean when I say, way back in the second paragraph of this review, that Kunzru seemed to veer towards a conventional conclusion about the conflicts that characterize our time. He doesn’t do a “love overcomes” thing. He comes close to doing a “paying attention and trying to fight emerging fascism will drive you mad, so, don’t” thing. As it happens, I think the last fifth or so of the book, where Trump wins the election and it becomes clear that the forces of conventional liberal reasoning — mostly represented by women who call Hari crazy, like his wife and his psychiatrist — can’t keep the wolf from the door, takes us away from this conclusion. Maybe it’s just me being politically happy with that, but I do think it shows some artistry on Kunzru’s part. Of course, a Brooklyn intellectual, confronted (away from home and what community he has and in a bad way emotionally) with fascism, would do some dumb bullshit like construe that the fascist set an elaborate online trap for him, and try to confront the fascist, in the trap, like a dumb movie. Hari’s subject is literally “the poetic I!” Individualism is his whole thing.

It’s not a just so story- Hari doesn’t, say, join any kind of community defense effort or something, which he dismisses with lines like “I was learning poetry when I should have (he doesn’t actually mean this) learned to field strip an AR-15” etc. He’s not any better off for his brush with fascism. That reads true, as well, and in keeping with the general sense of contemporary dread that Kunzru shares with Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, and, well, the news and the internet. Nobody learns anything. Nobody’s capable of learning anything, and it’s too late if they are. 

Kunzru deserves to be in Bolaño’s company, and that of the early, compelling Houellebecq, in terms of crafting an intelligent, readable narrative that rings true to our times. It is a compelling listen/read. I’d even say Hari is “Berard Complete” – he feels real without being tediously fleshed out, or anyway, more than a first-person narrator of his kind would flesh himself out in the course of telling a harrowing personal tale. I guess, at some point, I would like a story, one that isn’t about superheroes or people who might as well be, who see that fighting people who would oppress you, while not easy on the soul, is possible, sometimes necessary, and maybe not even a road to automatic emotional ruin and distance from your loved ones. Just for variety! I understand it doesn’t make sense to ding an author for the story they didn’t write, and this book certainly held my interest and inspired respect for its craft more than most recent literary books do. So, I won’t ding it that half star I was considering for my horror movie fan-style frustration with the Haris of the world, yelling at the book, “just punch him, you asshole! It worked on Richard Spencer!” *****

Review – Kunzru, “Red Pill”

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