Review of Red Pill by Hari Kunzru (2020)

There are certain moments that are used to paint a portrait of one’s life circumstances during a specific historical epoch. They can confirm whether we were content or unsettled, experienced or callow, happy or sad, affluent or struggling. When we describe these moments, they are often prefaced with ‘Where were you when (moment x) happened?’ So perversely captivating and unexpected are they, for many they are interwoven into the narratives they have created about their lives.

For those from Anglophone countries and beyond, a good example of this is the Kennedy Assassination. For Australians from the Baby Boom generation, the 1975 Constitutional Crisis and the subsequent Whitlam Dismissal is comparable. For millennials, September 11 is similar. I wasn’t alive for the former two, and for the latter, I was living at my parents’ home in Australia, and was asleep when the planes hit. I found out the following morning and just prior to that day’s university lectures. Needless to say, I was both flabbergasted and horrified at what I saw. I remember meekly asking classmates, like I was in a state of dissociative fugue, if they had ‘seen what happened in New York?’. It went without saying that everyone had seen what had happened. It wasn’t like they had decided to live like Morlocks in a secluded, underground society.

On November 9th, 2016, we were able to add yet another line of comparable questioning about an event that would endure in the memories of the world’s majority:

Where were you on the day that Donald Trump was elected the president of the United States?

The day for me was spent completing workday activities in the marketing and admissions role that I performed at a Japanese language school in Aichi. I should say that I was supposed to be completing workday activities. In reality, I spent most of the day incessantly and anxiously checking the incoming electoral results.

When he first announced his candidacy, I dismissed Trump as an inarticulate philistine and buffoon, whose only tangible assets were self promotion, bullying and obfuscation; one destined for implosion in the primaries. This was a ubiquitous perception held by many who shared my political inclinations. The Obama era had imbued many Center-Left voters, activists and political advocates with a confidence that the arc of history was indeed starting to immutably bend our way. With the passage of time, the world was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. It was becoming increasingly inclusive. It was becoming increasingly intellectual. It was not becoming increasingly homogenous, increasingly bigoted, or increasingly boorish. Those qualities were supposed to be decreasing…

Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

Weren’t they?

Proposing to an affluent, white, male, cisgender Left-liberal that someone like Trump might be elected president would likely have one greeted with a response comparable to the ‘Blue Screen of Doom’ that is displayed when one’s PC freezes. Or an incredulous laughter borne out of unexamined hubris, although this may have been a defense mechanism against an inconceivable, unacceptable and terrifying truth soon to be tangible.

Once he started winning Republican primaries, I started taking the likelihood of him becoming president more seriously. My thinking was that if he had gotten this far, who was to say he couldn’t go further? He had been written off by ‘very serious people’ before this and he’d endured. Plus, it was now down to what was essentially a two horse race. Anything was possible.

And one of those horses was being sold to a standoffish public as a political Secretariat, when in reality it was more Mr. Ed. Indeed, the second I heard that Hilary Clinton, and the symbiotes that nourished themselves on the Clintons’ political machine, had secured the Democratic nomination, my first thought was that the Trump team had gotten what they wanted: a candidate with enough baggage to tackle a round the world trip, and whose team’s penchant for political acumen was vastly overrated.

Thus on November the 9th, I started the day as a pulsing cloud of tension.

I realized that my worst expectations, just short of consciously acknowledging that a man who was the most demagogic and unqualified major party candidate of my lifetime would soon be the most powerful man in the world, had been reified when I vocalized them. I did this at a café that an American acquaintance of mine owned. Having been unavoidably busy most of that morning, he had been unable to check CNN for the latest numbers. I remember mournfully telling him that should things remain the same in counting trends, Donald Trump was going to be the next president of his country. He must have thought I was joking, or he was in denial, but me coaxing him to look at his laptop confirmed that my statement was indeed verifiable. I think I then spent the rest of the day aimlessly wandering around my workplace like a perpetual motion machine whose output was dread rather than speed. Like September 11, all I could do is ask if people had seen that Trump was going to win.

It finally hit home the next morning when I watched breakfast TV, and I saw reports featuring him at THAT election night gathering where it seemed that he hadn’t even written a victory speech. Judging from the lack of pejoratives, piffle and provocation in the address he gave, he likely had someone cobble together an ad hoc one for him. It was at that moment that I could take no more. I burst into tears while my wife comforted me. I was now a heaving agglomeration of existential ennui and self loathing. One part of me was dreading what this would mean for so many of the things that I held dear: inclusiveness, equity, tolerance and reason. Another part of me, perhaps my egotistical side, was coming to grips that what I held dear wasn’t deemed as conventional as I thought, and ideas that I felt that would and should make one a pariah for espousing had been electorally validated.

Speaking to Americans from a similar background and viewpoint as mine, I’ve come to realize that I wasn’t Robinson Crusoe when it came to this. It’s ubiquity was so prevalent that it has become the basis for a book: Red Pill by Hari Kunzru.

The term ‘Red Pill’ is an online, Alt-Right term originally taken from the movie ‘The Matrix’. It describes a process in which tenets one took for granted are revealed as lies and the ugly truth is revealed. For the Alt-Right, it is used to ‘prove’ that the ugly, counterproductive, conspiratorial and nativist worldview they promote is the true way of things*. The novel ‘Red Pill’ revolves around an unnamed narrator of Indian descent living in Brooklyn who is given the chance to metaphorically ingest said red pill. Married to a human rights lawyer, he is sent on a scholarship to the Deuter Center in Germany to complete research on Romantic poets. Feeling cloyed by the lack of privacy given at the center and agitated by his encounters with an abrasive and contrarian scholar called Edgar, whose brash and confrontational diatribes recall Jordan Peterson at his most obnoxious and verbose, he ends up using his free time watching a nihilistic and misanthropic TV series called ‘Blue Lives’ produced by a man named Anton. The world view provided in ‘Blue Lives’ is bleak, with the morality, utility or humanity of the characters being driven by ruthless and Hobbesian precepts. The world portrayed in it is summed up by a line given by Carson, one of the main characters, in that the world is ‘perpetually steeped in blood… a vast altar on which all living things must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without pause, until the consumation of things.’ To the narrator, this is a mockery of human dignity, yet his New York Times opinion page mindset has never really forced him to consider the lived morality of his opinions. He thinks the way he does thanks to a solid dose of intellectualization, plenty of mental masturbation and the need to be seen as part of ‘polite society’.

His encounters with Edgar and watching ‘Blue Lives’ aside, there are other encounters that are leading him to a crisis of conscience. He encounters Monika, a cleaner at the Deuter Center who was once a punk rocker turned Stasi informer in the former German Democratic Republic. After telling her tale of sexual exploitation, betrayal and regret, she parts with the narrator by informing him that he is ‘… sentimental. I was trying to help you… But you’re soft and selfish. The world will chew you up and spit you out.’ An encounter with a Syrian refugee and his daughter, as well as with Anton himself, a character 1/2 Steve Bannon true believer propagandist and one half Milo Yiannopolous edgelord provocateur, unintentionally presents the narrator with a series of existential and ethical questions that leads him down pathways both obsessive and erratic, and ultimately to insanity and paranoia.

Original photo posted by Signe Pierce (@sigggnasty) on Twitter.

It takes a while to warm up, but I found that Red Pill serves as a good allegory for what the Trump years became for a lot of ‘brunch liberals’ : a four year gaslighting where one’s most basic perceptions were called into question, the conducting of a rigorous inquiry into values that they viewed as generic, and a realization that, despite what they had been telling themselves, the world could be much uglier than what they previously had thought. I believe the narrator’s journey is one that many others went through up until the day Trump left office. Even with Biden now in power, many are still questioning themselves now concerning their views on humanity, because countless masses of them never bothered to confront it’s more vicious and cynical aspects up until the day Trump actually won.

While I appreciated Kunzru’s use of bleak and foreboding backdrops in Berlin and on the Scottish coast, I found the narrator incredibly frustrating. He reminded me of a bizarro Holden Caulfield in that he had Holden’s impulsivity and fecklessness in spades, but none of his self righteousness or sense of justice. If anything, he spent so much of the novella wringing his hands: about his wife, about his estrangement from his old drinking buddies, about his work and ultimately about hidden philosophies in television shows. There were so many times where I just wanted him to snap back at one of his interlocutors with a retort based in empirical proof or lived experience.

I believe Kunzru making sure that his narrator did not do this was a deliberate plot device. As I have noted elsewhere, one of the axioms of the Lolbertarian/’Western Civilization’/Nihilist Right since 2014 has been ‘Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings’. Prior to the rise of Bernie Sanders, many on the Western neo-liberal Left grounded much of their analysis in the outcomes of individual actions. This aspect of the character is illustrated by the narrator not really having any close connections, and his rejection of community as witnessed by his constant complaints about having to work in a shared workspace that the Deuter Center has set up for all staff in attendance. This mindset runs parallel with his tendency to not consider anything that does not extend beyond his own internal experiences and ruminations. This in turns segregates him from the wider world that he analyzes and passes judgement on. It’s clear that his brittle ideological praxis based on ‘choices’ and aesthetics molded exclusively by philosophical ruminations. In short, he is struggling to forge a tolerant identity while operating in the ‘no such thing as society’ paradigm Thatcher promoted.

If injustices existing across societies are the decisions we make rather than the outcome of systemic glitches in the neo-liberal, post industrial world that we live in, then personal agency is paramount. In this framework, to actively choose the side of the oppressor is to be consciously guilty. On the contrary, to fight against the ‘bad people’ makes one virtuous. This paradigm breaks things down to a series of individual interactions defined by a predetermined set of ‘etiquette’ that many liberals expected would shame reactionaries into ‘playing nice’. But the key question is: what if they don’t want to play nice anymore; as they did from 2014 onwards? As was pointed out by Kunzru, in an interview he conducted with Jacobin in 2020, this is depicted in a scene in which Anton says to the narrator ‘Your weakness is that you are always surrounded by people who think just like you. When you meet someone who your silly shame tactics don’t work on, you don’t know how to act. I’m a racist because I want to be with my own kind, and you’re a saint because you want to help other people far away, nice abstract refugees who save you from having to commit to anybody or anything real’. Never mind that there have been many occasions through history where xenophobia and parochialism has led to mass horror, and that internationalist solidarity has led to societal flourish. In this exchange, politics becomes purely a morality play, an aesthetic choice and a dehumanization of what is not immediately adjacent to one’s life, and it leads the narrator to confront questions about human nature that he cannot answer. Now confronted with something he had never considered until then, he wonders if what has punched him clean between the eyes has any substance to it. The entire experience leaves him paranoid, ideologically neutered and suffering from poor mental health. Just as he has finished going through his own crisis of conscience, the book ends on Election Day 2016 when many other started suffering from their own.

Much of this correlates well with the experience I wrote about in my introduction. While I don’t make and haven’t made acquaintance with with purveyors of fascistic views similar to those espoused by Anton, my own ‘awakening’ came when Trump was elected. It made me reconsider that there were people out there who weren’t like me, and there numbers were greater than I could imagine. It made me recognize that 40 years of neo-liberal had left segments of an electorate frustrated about their life chances in both the UK and USA. In many cases, they may have voted for Trump or for Brexit if they were in the demographics those campaigns targeted or held the type of hierarchy worshipping beliefs that underpinned both of them. In other cases, they may have just sat out from voting full stop because how mediocre the choices they were offered. We start behind the eight ball with the former. They are difficult to shift as the epistemological foundations of how they view the world are opposite to the ideal of society we wish to create. However, I have come to believe that if we give enough hope to the latter, as well as unequivocally proof that collective action does indeed make our world a better place, then we need not pay heed to the ideals of the vicious, parochial and selfish whose interests these ideals ultimately serve.

While I do endorse holistic and materialist approaches to achieving broader equity and justice, I don’t endorse class reductionism as a pass to overlook rank bigotry. We should never, ever accept the premise that White supremacy or authoritarian fascism are ideologies borne exclusively of economic anxiety. They are founded in the belief that some existences are more inherently more valid than others, and that ours is a planet in which we all live in a figurative fish tank where sharks reign supreme and minnows get eaten. And that this is not only inevitable, but ideal.

Thankfully, they cannot provide the one thing that socialist/progressive Leftist policy can: hope and the material improvement of our lives.

While the depression gave us Adolf Hitler, it also gave us the New Deal. While the American South gave us George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan, it also gave us the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Poor People’s Campaign. The latter of those two historical scenarios have been remembered on the right and victorious side of history and made life materially better for others through their work in addressing the material root causes of injustice in society. And we are all the better for it.

  • Ironically enough for a subculture that is rabidly LGBT+ (among the countless other hatreds and resentments they foster), they chose to use a metaphor that was originally meant to represent the decision to come out as trans as Lilly Wachowski points out here.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:

Hari Kunzru’s Novel Red Pill Is a Literary Document of the Age of the Alt-Right

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru review – A Timely Take on Reality

The Alt-Right Playbook: How to Radicalize a Normie

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