We have all, at some point in our lives, awoken to find that something we used to believe is a lie. The world used to look one way, but now you can see right through it, the cracks and the fissures. A part of you is fractured, your self is changed, disconnected, and it takes time to reset, to let your world come back together again. Sometimes, we replace one belief with a new one, one we think better explains the way everything looks now. Sometimes, that’s not a good thing.
Hari Kunzru’s new novel Red Pill is exceedingly clever in feeding the reader this slow detachment, and mimics almost exactly how it feels to be taken over by a powerful, intoxicating, and dangerous belief. Its unnamed narrator succumbs to the power of an extremist ideology, and while he never fully absorbs it, he is, effectively, “redpilled.” He is exposed to small doses of a belief system sold as bitter, but necessary, truth. The world is not what it presents itself as, and to save himself and his family from it, he feels he must swallow the pill.
He is struggling with his latest book, a meditation on the “lyric I.” On a writer’s retreat at the fictional Deuter Center just outside of Berlin, he struggles with the very idea that such a concept even exists, saying that “[w]henever I tried to focus my attention on it, on myself, to experience some version of the exquisite interiority…the fullness that I ought to have found was missing. There were impressions, experiences, and there seemed to be a subject attached to them…but there was no unity, no proof that this “I”… was present in any meaningful way at all.” The narrator is isolated from the beginning of the narrative, feeling disconnected from his wife and child, eager to write his way out of his midlife crisis. It’s not surprising that as he struggles with his subject at hand, he is also struggling with his own idea of himself.
The narrator’s general insecurity manifests in his unease with the Deuter Center itself, its communal mission and collegial atmosphere. It’s difficult to tell if the Center is perhaps a bit too committed to its goals, in terms of its surveillance of its residents, or if the narrator is already displaying the paranoia that builds to a fever pitch later in the novel. Regardless, the tension between the narrator and the Center, its staff and other residents, do nothing to help him, and his feelings of disconnection grow. He grows obsessed with the 18th century writer Heinrich von Kleist after finding his grave on the Wannsee Lake that abuts the Deuter Center. At the same time, the narrator starts consuming increasingly violent media, especially the fictional American copaganda TV show Blue Lives. The show depicts a depraved world of ceaseless violence, both on the part of criminals and the police officers that make up the main cast. The narrator stops working on his book, and is on the verge of being kicked out of the center, when he meets the show’s creator at a party in Berlin.
Anton, a smarmy young socialite and artist, admits to the narrator that he has been slipping in references to fascist, racist, and esoteric writings in Blue Lives. This smug, cocky internet troll who discovered a way to turn his online influence into real-world power is a perfect antithesis to the unnamed narrator’s isolation and lack of control. He wants to prove to Anton that he has power, that Anton’s racism, his fascist symbolism (present in Anton’s movies, shows, and posts on internet message boards) is hollow, a mask that hides an ugly truth. But instead he wilts in the face of Anton’s unearned confidence, and is “redpilled” into thinking that he is now at the center of a cosmic war between the two men.
Kunzru’s insistence on an unnamed narrator, his deliberate focus on how a privileged, well-educated man gradually grows estranged from his grip on reality, all adds up to a convincing portrait of what it looks like to be “redpilled,” a phenomenon that we increasingly have to reckon with. In fact, the narrator represents a critique of many well-intentioned liberals who attempt to understand the Far Right in order to combat them, but never end up moving beyond the stage of obsessive research. It is a deliberate strategy on the part of many among the Dissident Right, as they now style themselves. They gaslight and destabilize those who are already without a support system, who feel alienated from themselves and others, who feel out of place in the modern world.
In a particularly memorable scene, after the narrator has returned home to New York City, he leaves his therapy session and the world reveals itself to him as an actual simulation. The narrator’s world view twisted and contorted as he gave into his obsessions, but once he’s on the other side, he has a moment of pure detachment. Convinced the subway can’t harm him, that he would simply reappear, “…reboot and find [him]self back at some previous moment, at the start of some section or level in [his] life,” he is purely outside of himself. Kunzru’s uses the first person point of view to create this unhitching, and the narrator’s very namelessness only enhances it. The narrator asks “Would my death even be my death?” He has lost entirely any sense of self, has been subsumed by the idea of the simulation, and is no longer a subject any more, at least until a cyclist almost knocks him over and he is jarred back to reality.
Kunzru’s novel ends on Election Night 2016, when the “world howls and scratches to be let in.” We are left terrified at the notion of radicalized individuals succeeding in vaulting a man like Donald Trump to the presidency. But Kunzru’s narrator finds comfort in the notion of unity, of knowing that, since he has reunited with his family, that he is not facing the cold emptiness of the world by himself any more.
Taking the red pill means, for most, accepting that there is no larger meaning to anything, and the world and society only react to the strong. At least, that’s what it used to mean. Red Pill forces us to live in the mind of a single person grappling with that realization (regardless of if it’s true). The novel is a terrific, vital portrayal, but it seems to be almost outdated. This is not to knock Red Pill. It’s a new development, and one that directly counters prior arguments of mere solidarity as the antidote to conspiracy theories. Even as red pill pushers prey on the most alone and vulnerable, they offer a sense of security and belonging, and their buyers have only swelled in number since Trump’s victory.
I started writing this review the weekend of August 22, as more than 200 marches took place across the United States purporting to be rallies against child trafficking. If it weren’t for all the weird “Qs” that keep popping up on people’s signs, or an unusual acronym, “WWG1WWA,” spelled out on hats, T-shirts, and banners, you might have been fooled into thinking this was a legitimate movement on behalf of children. But it’s actually a deliberate attempt to bring an online conspiracy theory to life. Those Q signs mean something. They signify a hidden depth, one that emerges if you cross your eyes long enough and stare, like a Magic Eye picture. A new reality springs out of nothingness and insists on its existence.
The QAnon cult is not on the fringes anymore. Its associated conspiracy theories—Pizzagate, celebrities drinking the blood of children to stay young, the online furniture company Wayfair selling overpriced pillows & cabinets with the names of missing children—are entering common conversation, and any one them can be your mother’s entry point into a vast, multitudinous web of alternative realities. To QAnon believers, these theories are the red pills. But don’t be afraid, they say, because you aren’t alone in this fight. Their motto, the “WWG1WWA” acronym, is where we go one, we go all.
Those redpilled by QAnon insist that while you might be alone before you are “awakened,” once you are on the other side, the “I” becomes a “We.” Being redpilled in 2020 doesn’t look like accepting a cold, empty world where your subjective life is meaningless, which is what it looks like in Kunzru’s novel, in the narrator’s inability to define the “lyric I” and his descent into the rabbit hole. Now it means accepting and embracing a completely fictional world, with the knowledge that there is a larger We that you belong to.
Red Pill is a much-needed literary examination of the red pill phenomenon, especially in its demonstration of how it hooks those who should know better. The question now becomes what do we do when those addicted to the drug no longer feel isolated, and see the world only in terms of “us versus them.” Kunzru’s novel gives us a means to examine how an individual can lose themselves in a well-executed mind game. It’s now up to us to apply it to a post-2016 world to see if we can’t pull some people out, or to fight it as best we can. As Anton tells the narrator, “the only way out is through.”
By Hari Kunzru
Knopf Publishing Group
Published September 1, 2020
Michael Pittard is an English lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has an MFA in poetry from UNCG and is a former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review.