Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Reviewed by Annabel

I’ve been a fan of Kunzru’s writing since his first novel was published. He is one of those authors that always makes me think! His previous book, White Tears, which I reviewed for Shiny here, definitely got my grey cells working. Stylistically it was a book of two halves, combining a story of musical appropriation with its ghostly consequences as things go seriously wrong. White Tears was wonderful, but people tended to prefer one half or the other – I preferred the more structured but still thrilling first half. How would Red Pill measure up?

Our narrator is never named. He’s an author of English and Indian parentage, based in New York, (like Kunzru himself, of course). He loves his wife Rei, a human rights lawyer, and his young daughter Nina unreservedly, but emotionally and mentally he needs a break. Having had a surprise hit with his first book, he’s struggling with his next. As the novel begins, he is off to Germany to begin a stint at the Deuter Center, a research institute situated on the Wannsee outside Berlin. Across the lake, through the wintery mists, you can see the villa where Heydrich convened the meeting which approved the ‘Final Solution’ in WWII – it looms in the distance, always in the background.

When the narrator finds it impossible to work under the conditions stipulated by the Deuter Centre, who want their residents to interact and inform each other’s work by providing a shared workroom in which they must work quietly but in each other’s presence, and then off-load during the shared dinners, he retreats to his room at the top of the institute – a writer’s garret. There, he finds he can’t work either, so he just binge-watches a rather violent cop show called Blue Lives.

He also takes long walks around the lake, and becomes obsessed with the German poet Heinrich von Kleist, who killed himself on the Wannsee shore in 1811. He regularly passes by the poet’s grave there. Back in his room, he realises that the cop show’s creator has built in quotations from obscure German poets and philosophers into the script. The Deuter Center staff are increasingly unhappy with him, reminding him of his contract, and he begins to think they are spying on him, becoming increasingly paranoid.

All this happens in the first half of the novel. Despite my unfamiliarity with German Romantic lyric poetry and philosophy, Kunzru doesn’t overload us with detail. There is enough to see how the narrator is beginning to become confused between himself and the self in the poetry, the latter being what he was meant to be studying. Kunzru presents us with a portrait of an overwhelmed man who is rapidly approaching the brink.

Then Kunzru gives us an intermission. The one person the narrator had talked to at any length was Monika, the East German woman who cleans his room. She tells him of her youth before the Wall came down, about how being a rebel in East Berlin caused Stasi interest and the trouble that led to where she is now, hiding from those who remember the consequences. This short section was both a contrast in state vs personal paranoia and a palate-cleanser before the second half and the main action of the novel begins.

When the narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, he makes the mistake of indulging him and discovers that Anton’s PoV is far from his own, but Anton is now in his head too…

Kunzru continues to weave these strands together into the narrator’s increasing obsessions and mental distress leading to a climax that is brilliantly drawn but leads to a rather downbeat ending that leaves the reader wondering. Perhaps that was the right thing to do, keeping us guessing and keeping the novel sub-300 pages. That said, this is a novel of intellectual depth that addresses some timely concerns, from mental health to the alt right, the role of self and truth vs fact.  There is also the slight meta edge introduced by the narrator’s similarity to Kunzru himself which adds a frisson of extra excitement in the games that are being played with the reader. Kunzru is an author who doesn’t repeat himself. Red Pill is another fascinating addition to his bibliography which I enjoyed very much.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Hari Kunzru, Red Pill (Scribner, 2020). 978-1471194474, 320pp., hardback.

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