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Monsters and Beautiful Souls

Hari Kunzru's novel 'Red Pill' depicts the disquieting relationship between a bored liberal academic and a charismatic alt-right edgelord.

There is a meme that recently began to spread around the outer circuit of Instagram shitposters, depicting a slumped figure or disenchanted face submerged beneath an overlay of contemporary online culture’s endlessly self-replicating syntagma: ‘cringe’, ‘cope’, ‘simp’, ‘based’, ‘NPC’, ‘red-pilled’, and so on, and so on. This all-too-recognisable condition of linguistic malaise, describing a kind of digital weltschmerz or ‘platform fatigue’ common to the highly online, is the terrain occupied by Hari Kunzru’s disquieting new novel Red Pill.

This atypical man-in-a-crisis story — think Rabbit Angstrom Goes Down the PewdiePipeline — follows the monomaniacal descent of a middle-aged Brooklynite cultural critic on a residency at the ‘Deuter Center for Social and Cultural Research’ in Wannsee, Berlin, in the fateful year, the now almost unimaginably distant past, of 2016. Supposedly there to toil away on a book about the ‘technology of subjectivity’ in German lyric poetry, but continually side-tracked from the calmer pool of Goethe’s Wandrers Nachtlied towards the turbulent life and work of Heinrich von Kleist, who committed suicide on the shore of the neighbouring Wannsee lake, Red Pill’s unnamed narrator initially procrastinates his time away through long, aimless perambulations around the area.

Intent on escaping the intrusive spirit of ‘openness’ and ‘collaboration’ demanded by the Deuter Center residency programme, as well as the mealtime interrogations he receives from his fellow residents, such as the odious ‘free-speech fundamentalist’ neuroscientist Edgar, he instead hides away in his room binging on an ultraviolent cop-show called Blue Lives. At once threatened and fascinated by the misanthropic brutality of this peculiar show, but also by the origins of its cop protagonist’s recondite, nihilistic utterances, he then fortuitously runs into Blue Lives’ creator at a charity gala in Berlin, the mysterious ‘Anton’. After the violence of their first meeting, he is drawn into Anton’s orbit — stalking him from Paris to a remote homesteading Bothy on the west coast of Scotland.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a writer who has devoted a great deal of energy to documenting online cults and conspiracies since his time at Wired in the 1990s, Kunzru skilfully depicts the profane illumination that this encounter with the charismatic and reactionary Anton offers to the otherwise disenchanted protagonist. The macho self-belief and unwavering conviction of the alt-right edgelord, their strange magnetism, is juxtaposed throughout against the vacillating bad conscience of Kunzru’s liberal hero, who, like Hegel’s ‘beautiful soul’, ends up ‘disordered to the point of madness, wastes itself in yearning, and pines away in consumption’. Or, as Anton prophetically declares on their final encounter, ‘from now on when you see anything you need to understand that you’re seeing it because I want you to see it’.

The novel’s denouement sees the narrator back home on the eve of the 2016 election, heavily medicated and slowly recovering from his episode of paranoid psychosis, once more snug in the cocoon of his Clintonite peers. This election night set-piece in particular has a devastating dramatic irony to it, that suddenly ties together the book’s otherwise bolder and more disparate excursions (such as a section entitled Zersetzung (Undermining), which recounts the life story of an East German cleaner pressured into collaborating with the Stasi).

Much like the coda of Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, in which all the narrative threads are neatly tied up just as the protagonist exits the subway filled with hope on the morning of September 11th, 2001, or the genealogy of the contemporary American media landscape given more recently by Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, in which all roads ultimately lead to Trump, this is a literary approach to recent history which attests to Adorno’s declaration that ‘the recent past always presents itself as if destroyed by catastrophes.’ Yet the incipient catastrophe figured here is not so much Trump the demagogue, the ‘part-time president’, the cipher for righteous liberal indignation, as Trump the facilitator, ‘the portal through which all manner of monsters could step into our living room’.

The questions Red Pill repeatedly poses, without attempting to answer, seem then as germane to the accelerating and interrelated crises of the US election-year 2020 as they were to the inflection point of 2016: how to retain your sanity when all about you are losing theirs? Where to cut the line between the significant and the trivial, the ominous and the throwaway? Are they kidding or for real? Is it time to log off? Am I reading too much into all of this?