More than a midlife crisis: Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill

Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill was my paperback companion during a fall 2021 vacation to Portugal with Iris. I was sitting on the white sand of a Portuguese beach, the sun warming my skin after an ocean swim, and excited to crack open my holiday novel. I was rested, happy, and ready for the opening paragraph to suck me into a great story. Instead, Kunzru offered me this just a few months after I turned 41:

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. So this is where I am, you say to yourself. This is what I have become. It is when you first understand that your condition — physically, intellectually, socially, financially is not absolutely mutable, that what has already happened will, to a great extent, determine the rest of the story. What you have done cannot be undone, and much of what you have been putting off for “later” will never get done at all. In short, your time is a finite and dwindling resource. From this moment on, whatever you are doing, whatever joy or intensity or whirl of pleasure you may experience, you will never shake the almost-imperceptible sensation that you are traveling on a gentle downward slope into darkness.

LOL. Did I want to keep reading? I realized that the unreliable narrator of my holiday novel was going through a serious, self-absorbed, midlife freakout. As if that weren’t enough, he warns you: “At a certain point, I’d accepted that I could only communicate in my own way, which is to say by generating a sort of paratactical blizzard of obscure cultural references and inviting my reader to fall through it with me.”

Surely that is enough to scare most readers away. Somehow, it sucked me in.

More than a midlife crisis

Upon finishing Red Pill, I declared (to myself) that it is one of my ten favorite novels. And yet, I am aware that most people will not enjoy this book. It tries to do too much, they will say. Too many ideas, not enough plot. The narrator is neurotic, and the other characters are two-dimensional.

These are all fair criticisms, and somehow they make me to love the book even more. Punk rock is just three chords and too loud, you say? You’re right, I shrug, while turning it up.

I have three humble goals for this review. I want to articulate why I loved the book. I want to convince you to give it a shot if you’re on the fence. Mostly, I want to find other people who love Kunzru’s writing as much as I do, and I want to invite those people out for drinks at The Alley. But to get there, first, a brief summary of its quirky plot. Perhaps you could accuse me of spoilers over the next four paragraphs, but honestly, I offer a thin slice of a multi-layered story.

The narrator, like the author, is a writer, husband, and father of British and Indian ancestry who lives in Brooklyn. He is facing writer’s block, a midlife crisis, and a persistent dread that something terrible is afoot that will threaten the safety of his wife and daughter. Unlike the author (who is married to the novelist Katie Kitamura), the narrator is married to a no-nonsense human rights lawyer who has grown impatient with her husband’s middle-age malaise and so encourages him to participate in a writer’s residency to figure his shit out and get his life back on track.

He arrives to the writer’s residency in Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where senior Nazi leaders met in 1942 to plan the mass murder of Jews. Still unable to write, the narrator befriends a grumpy middle-aged janitor who describes what it was like to come of age in East Germany’s punk rock ’80s, when she couldn’t determine who was a friend and who was a Stasi informant. He wanders into a refugee camp at the height of Europe’s Syrian refugee crisis. But mostly, he binge watches a violent vigilante cop show in his room. At this point, the narrator has pulled us down his rabbit hole as his midlife crisis morphs into psychotic breakdown. The final third of the novel shifts from the big thoughts and subtle observations of a writer at a writer’s retreat into psychological thriller.

The narrator begins to obsess over the motives of the creator of the cop show, fleeing the writer’s residency to pursue him to Berlin, Paris, and a sparsely populated Scottish island. By the end of the novel, the narrator is back in his Brooklyn apartment with his wife and daughter and a few friends as they watch the results from the Clinton-Trump election come in.

We, the audience, know what happens next, while we sympathetically read the stunned characters try to make sense of election night shock from the comfort of their Brooklyn apartment: the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the Democrats’ mistaken obsession with a non-existent Russia conspiracy, the hyperpartisan COVID response, George Floyd, Kyle Rittenhouse, the Great Awokening, the attack on the capitol building.

The narrator seemed to know what was coming all along. But following his nervous breakdown, he’s on too much antidepressive medicine to muster up an “I told you so.”

And in many ways, that’s how this book comes off, as one big “I told you so” to all the complacent liberals, myself included, who were certain that we’d have a smooth transition from America’s first black president to its first female president. (I laughed at Michael Moore’s warning that Trump would win. I remember listening to the last debate between Clinton and Trump and thinking Clinton would win in a landslide.) The narrator was medicated for his paranoid breakdown, but in hindsight, his paranoia was well informed. And it turned out that Trump’s election wasn’t the only lurking danger; Kunzru finished his manuscript for the book just months before New York City would become the COVID epicenter in mid-2020. (It was published in September, 2020.)

A deeply philosophical, psychological, and sociological book

Before I consider the ideas of the novel, let me be straight with you about why it’s one of my favorites:

  1. We spend a lot of time constructing the story of our self. Like Kunzru, I am tempted to deconstruct that story and question just who is in charge of my thoughts and actions. What are my motives? Who am I performing for? But when I do, it puts me into dangerous territory. Do I have an essence beyond the story I tell? To what degree would I still be me if I grew up in, say, Nazi Germany?
  2. Does the arc of the moral universe truly bend toward justice, or is that just another story? Is liberalism the “end of history,” as Fukuyama insists, or is Fascism (tribe above individual) the natural order? What is an appropriate level of caution/paranoia that Fascism will win out against liberalism? Are illiberal tactics ever justified to save liberalism?
  3. Are cop shows, like “24,” that flout due process evil? After watching 70 hours of Game of Thrones, are we affected by its profound nihilism? As we read less and watch more, will liberalism decline? I think a lot about how new technologies change not just how we tell stories, but also which stories we choose to tell.

Embedded throughout its quirky plot, Red Pill is a novel of ideas that subtly (perhaps even inadvertently) juxtaposes life under four competing ideological regimes: 1) the individualistic, liberal democracy of Brooklyn; 2) the statist paranoia of ’80s East Germany; 3) the fascist Nazi regime that elevated race above individual; and 4) the techno-transparent-panopticon that began with Karl Popper’s Open Society and was later warped into “The California Ideology.”

For Kunzru, only Brooklyn’s liberalism, anonymity, and individualism offers the possibility of individual and collective flourishing. With socialism, we lose our individualism and social trust. With fascism, we descend into a Darwinian struggle for purity. The California Ideology of optimization and open offices erodes our privacy and sense of self.

But what gives us a sense of self? The narrator’s residency project explores the experience of selfhood by German Romantic poets. By writing down our feelings and experiences, he argues, we construct our self. However, during tense dinner debates with Edgar, an older scholar of the residency, our narrator begins to doubt himself. Edgar pokes fun at the narrator’s literary conception of the self; or indeed, that there is any such thing as “the self.” He challenges the narrator over dinner in front of the other residents:

“The self! Where is it? Where is it located?”
“Well, obviously when it comes to lyric poetry, it’s in the field of the poem. On the page.” Edgar looked puzzled, and I congratulated myself on executing the postmodernist version of spraying mace in his eyes. Where is the self? What did he think I was going to say, the pineal gland?

But Edgar’s persistent, playful poking does get to him and he starts to doubt his own argument. Suffering from writer’s block, unable to articulate his feelings, he starts to doubt that there is any such thing as an autonomous self, or indeed, a collective moral framework to protect us from our own worst impulses. In an interview in the New Yorker, Kunzru describes his narrator’s existential crisis:

When he looks inside himself, what does he find? Is he a rich, deeply felt self, or is he just a jumble of impressions? Is he autonomous, or is he shaped and controlled by outside forces? Does he have privacy, or are his mental and emotional insides “leaking out”? Is he constantly betraying himself? I’m interested in ideas about authenticity, and about how we behave if we feel we’re being watched. Privacy, in the traditional sense, is almost impossible to insure now … And, if our old ideas about human selfhood fade into history, what happens to the ideas of human dignity and human rights that traditionally go with them?

These are big questions that are frowned upon as either adolescent or unproductive, which is why 90% of the world will not enjoy this book. But then there is the 10%. The obsessive truth-seekers, the philosophers, the ones who would choose the red pill.

Take the red pill

The red pill and blue pill, we are told by Wikipedia, represent a choice between the willingness to learn a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by taking the red pill or remaining in the contented experience of ordinary reality with the blue pill.

To “take the red pill” originates from The Matrix in 1999, but in recent years it has become a conservative online badge that signals distrust of the mainstream media’s progressive storytelling. Beyond the progressive construct of the New York Times, they argue, there is an “intellectual dark web” where dispassionate thinkers are willing to consider topics that are taboo in mainstream discourse. But how do we decide what marks the boundaries of mainstream media, the intellectual dark web, and conspiracy theories? How do we establish a social consensus of what (and who) is trustworthy?

The American philosopher Richard Rorty insisted that “truth is made rather than found.” Or as Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the stone age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives.”

For Kunzru, to take the red pill isn’t just to distrust the mainstream media, but to distrust the entire concept of a shared truth. The stories we tells ourselves about how we ought to act are just that, stories. There are no “rights given by God,” or by prophets. The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” is just that, a declaration. They are merely social agreements, and for Kunzru, they are extremely fragile agreements that could be quickly overturned, as they were under the Nazis and Stalinists. Like dollar bills, we value human rights because we choose to. And we can just as easily choose to value something else.

An obsessive critique of 24 and Game of Thrones

During the second half of the book, the plot pivots from the narrator’s midlife crisis to a psychological thriller as he hunts down the screenwriter of a cop TV show.

Back at the writer’s retreat, our narrator becomes engrossed in Blue Lives, an extremely violent police procedural show. In an interview at Electric Lit, Kunzru describes the uncomfortable allure of the vigilante cop that started with the Dirty Harry movies of the 1970s:

He basically opened the lid on the idea that actually what people want is for the police to break the rules. They want the police to go beyond what they’re allowed to do in order to take revenge or keep us safe. The “us” being a very interestingly defined character. Who is the “us” who is being kept safe and who is the “them” that we are being kept safe from, is the big question in all of these obviously.

Much like San Francisco of today, the city in the 1970s had the reputation of out-of-control crime, as the Summer of Love devolved into the Zebra murders, the Zodiac killer, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. The character of Dirty Harry was invented to do what the government seemingly couldn’t: bring down the bad guys.

Dirty Harry Callahan roams the streets of 1970s San Francisco and shoots down (mostly Black) criminals while he hunts down a serial killer. Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman turned down the role because of the film’s rightwing, reactionary politics. Even John Wayne turned it down because of the film’s gratuitous violence. But “gratuitous violence” by 1970s standards pales in comparison with Game of Thrones, or just about any action movie on a streaming platform today.

In the Electric Lit interview, Kunzru observes that “Game of Thrones would look very different had it had to abide by broadcast rules … there is this edging towards an increasingly graphic portrayal of violence, and particularly torture.” What happens when we become accustomed to Game of Thrones-level violence and torture? What is the societal influence of its reach? As the narrator begins to obsess over the intentions of the creator of the cop show, he writes:

What I wrote, my faltering accounts of the things I thought and believed, reached a few thousand readers in the tiny milieu of people who bought and discussed books of cultural essays. Anton’s work had an audience of millions. Blue Lives wasn’t big as far as TV shows went, but it had more reach than I could ever dream of.

The average book now sells less than 200 copies per year and less than 1,000 copies over its lifetime. How many of those books are actually read? Season 8 of Game of Thrones averaged 46 million viewers. (The most popular TikTop videos regularly attract hundreds of millions of views. 380 million people played the video game PUBG in 2022.)

Hollywood is accused of progressive bias, but that is not the case with most video games or Game of Thrones, which advance the narrative that the world is too dangerous for democracy or due process. (The anonymous “Film Blogger” describes how Game of Thrones the TV series betrays the politics of the books with its reactionary, conservative conclusion.)

If you’ve made it this far, then this book is for you

If you have made it this far through this dense, multilayered review, then I am entirely confident you will enjoy Red Pill.

You know that feeling when you’ve discovered a new, favorite band that you want everyone else to know about, but then again you kinda don’t because in being your band they somehow reflect the uniqueness of your taste? That’s how I feel about Hari Kunzru. Not that Kunzru is exactly unknown: He has published six novels that have been translated into over twenty languages, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and is a contributor at Harper’s and the New York Review, where he regularly publishes wide-ranging essays that would take me months to research let alone write. His podcast for Pushkin, Into the Zone, was a favorite while I bicycled around desolate San Francisco during the first year of the pandemic. Red Pill made the year-end best book lists at the New York Times, NPR, and AV Club. And yet, few of even my most bookish friends have ever heard of him — which, of course, only elevates my fandom.

Who are the great philosophical writers of the 21st century? Zadie Smith gets my vote. As do Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, Murakami, and Ted Chiang. Among the great sociological novelists, I’d add Kingsolver, Franzen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and David Mitchell. Kunzru, for me, deserves a spot on both lists.

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Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.

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David Sasaki

Mostly ill-formed reflections to figure out what I think myself. Occasionally a fully formed essay with strong opinions, loosely held.