One Pill Makes You Smaller

Red Pill: A novel BY Hari Kunzru. New York: Knopf. 304 pages. $28.

The cover of Red Pill: A novel

WHAT ARE THESE RED PILLS AND WHERE DO YOU GET ONE? They seem more potent than most non-metaphorical drugs. Just a single dose and you’ll never see the world the same way again. The term comes from The Matrix. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) presents Neo (Keanu Reeves) with a choice of two pills, a blue one that will allow him to live complacently within the illusion he’s used to (a fake life as a regular Joe with a family and an office job), or a red one (it looks like a Robitussin tablet) that will show him “the truth” (he’s really in a pod hooked up to a tube that sucks out his life force—the sustainable energy of that fictional world). It was picked up as slang during the Bush years, an expert on the subject told me, by pick-up artists who learned that women would go to bed with them if they presented themselves as domineering assholes, negging their dates rather than adhering to an anodyne Hollywood version of charm in the mode of Paul Rudd. The slang then passed from the realm of hooking up to politics, where getting red-pilled means taking a reactionary turn, becoming unwoke, going deep into the weeds of politically incorrect “facts.” You can veer in the other direction, from an alt-right troll to socialist ally, and that’s called being blue-pilled. Being black-pilled means yielding to terminal despair. It’s a term commonly used by incels who’ve become convinced their loneliness will last until they die.

Conversion narratives are as old as Plato’s Cave or The Golden Ass of Apuleius. It’s no coincidence that this novel phrase comes from a movie made in the 1990s, a time when stories about reality’s general fakeness (Fight Club, The Truman Show) were as popular as Prozac and the idea that we’d reached the end of history. The people coming of age at that time were and still are called Gen X, and now, a couple of decades on, a literary genre is in full flower: the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel. These books don’t partake of the usual clichés we associate with the midlife crisis. Though divorce may be involved, adultery is not the central concern, and characters don’t tend to find themselves afflicted by a stultifying prosperity. Instead, they tend to find themselves in precarious positions in midlife, personally on the cusp of or experiencing a breakdown. And what do you know? The same is true of the society they live in. And so their own crack-up is hard to distinguish from the one happening or looming in the wider world, whether financial, ecological, cultural, or political. Since these characters belong to Gen X and came of age in the 1990s, they have little in the way of creeds—religious, political, or personal—to hold fast to when the crisis comes for them. They have flimsy worldviews, steeped in irony and cynicism, and maybe even flimsy personalities. Otherwise, how could they be altered entirely by one dose of a little red pill? It could be that they never came of age at all, that they’ve been stuck in an arrested adolescence all along, even through marriage and parenthood, and only the end of the world will make a real adult of them. They needn’t chase a lost youth because their youth never quite ended. It atrophied.

Examples of the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel include Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, Hark by Sam Lipsyte, A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, and Weather by Jenny Offill. Foer’s novel equates divorce with an apocalyptic earthquake in Israel. Krauss leaps from divorce to the fate of Kafka’s lost papers and throws in an apocalyptic sandstorm in the Israeli desert to keep things interesting. Lipsyte tells the story of a self-improvement cult with a world war raging in the background that hits America on the novel’s last page. A devastating flood strikes in Millet’s book and finds a set of vacationing Gen X parents so drunk and dissolute that their children have to take charge (the task of turning into an adult is thus outsourced to the next generation). Offill’s heroine—fearing for her offspring’s safety in the case of environmental disaster—becomes a prepper. (Ben Lerner’s last two novels, 10:04 and The Topeka School, both focus on earlier phases than midlife, but in a similar mode they allegorize their characters’ predicaments in the form of tropical storms and the Trump administration, respectively.) Looming over these books are two slightly older figures: Michel Houellebecq and Jonathan Franzen. Houellebecq’s novels enact scenarios of personal demoralization against a backdrop of political and cultural crisis. Over the course of three novels, Franzen reversed the polarity of the postmodern “Systems Novel”: instead of Everymen buffeted by the forces of a system they could neither control or comprehend (as in the paranoid novels of Pynchon and DeLillo), Franzen took to writing novels about characters who personified aspects of the System, for better or worse. The Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel is the weary (and unzany) successor to Hysterical Realism, and its foil is the rising Millennial Bildungsroman (see the novels of Sally Rooney or Raven Leilani’s Luster), in which virtuous young idealists enter a morally tainted adult world not of their making. (Nice work if you can get it!)

Hari Kunzru.
Hari Kunzru. Photo: Clayton Cubitt

Hari Kunzru’s new book Red Pill is the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel in its purest form: naming the genre wouldn’t have occurred to me if reading Red Pill hadn’t clarified the rules of the game. Its narrator-hero is a complacent leftish dilettante. A freelance writer, a Ph.D. dropout, and the author of a modestly successful book on the nature of taste (which of us shiftless critics hasn’t contemplated writing such a slim volume?), he is, like his author, a Briton of Indian descent living in New York City. But no need to sound the autofiction alarm; Kunzru is up to something else with this alter ego. His wife, Rei, is a human rights lawyer, and they have a three-year-old daughter. After a late-night epiphany (cold sweats, the realization that he is middle-aged and from here on his horizons are limited), he leaves Brooklyn for a three-month fellowship in Germany, where he has proposed to undertake a study of the lyric self (shiftless critic’s stock idea no. 2).

The Deuter Center is located in Wannsee, on the outskirts of Berlin. Nearby are the building where the Final Solution was devised, and the graves of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, the terminally ill musician who joined the thirty-four-year-old writer in a suicide pact in 1811. Our hero finds himself haunted by this pair of nineteenth-century “hysteric” geniuses and the shadow of the Holocaust as he settles into Deuter, a residence named for a postwar industrialist famous for refining titanium dioxide, a pigment that makes everything white. Herr Deuter was a fanatic for open markets and openness generally, and part of his legacy is the center’s policy of having its fellows work in an open communal space and monitoring the hours they spend working (with stipend deductions for shortfalls). For a writer used to toiling in solitude this is maddening (the shiftless critic agrees), and the surveillance extends to his living quarters, as he learns when he seeks help at the IT office and sees a staffer toggling between screens displaying a video game and the fat naked belly of one of the other fellows. The man with the gut happens to be Edgar, a right-winger in favor of pervasive surveillance and the quantitative management of society, a caustic critic of liberal pieties in the style of the Intellectual Dark Web, and an obnoxious companion at the center’s mandatory communal dinners (later revealed to be the author of Wrongthink: The Authoritarian Left and the New Religion of Social Justice). Our hero soon begins contemplating an escape from this dystopian artists’ residency.

His dirty little secret—aside from the fact that he’s written nothing—is his obsession with an American TV cop show called Blue Lives, one of those antihero prestige vehicles that sees its main character become as bad and brutal as the drug lords he investigates. Characters’ monologues quote Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre, a royalist aristocrat exiled to Switzerland by the French Revolution and counter-Enlightenment philosophe given to writing grim sentences that sound even grimmer when they come out of the blood-spattered mouth of a corrupt cop: “The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar on which all living things must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without pause, until the consummation of things.” Watching the show sends the narrator into lurid fantasies about lurking dangers to his wife and child back in Brooklyn. Wandering near the site of the Wannsee Conference, he meets the Deuter Center’s porter, who takes him to a gun range. We have the sense that the hero’s red-pilling—his awakening to the sinister realities of pervasive surveillance and the fictional brutalities of the Blue Lives underworld—will turn him into a paranoid Second Amendment freak.

But that’s not the direction the novel takes. Another Deuter Center staffer, a cleaning person named Monika, tells him her life story, an interlude that occupies the middle third of the book. She grew up in East Germany, where she was labeled a “Negative Decadent.” On teenage trips to Berlin from the suburbs, she discovers punk, adopts its styles, and joins a band with two other young women. But a Stasi agent gets her fired from her job, and blackmails her into becoming a snitch on the nascent punk scene. The rowdiest punk she knows, 88 Tommy, the one who tends to bring every show to the edge of a riot, turns out to be another snitch and a covert agitator. Monika confesses to her friends that she’s been talking to the Stasi and is cast out, just before their communal house is raided and everyone arrested. But after she’s deployed for a phase as a roving Stasi agent, the Berlin Wall falls. In the new capitalist dispensation, Monika finds herself shunned again and unemployable whenever anyone learns of her past as a snitch. Soon enough, Katja, the charismatic leader of her band and a prominent liberal activist after reunification, is exposed as having been a Stasi agent since high school. Even her arrest at the punk commune was staged. Everything about Monika’s old life was doubly phony.

What does this sad and intricate tale of the past have to do with the narrator’s predicament in the present? Whatever his anxieties about pervasive surveillance today, things aren’t as bad as they used to be. Digital surveillance and CC cameras make for a relatively soft, even benevolent form of discipline. (This is the attitude of those, like Edgar, who herald the coming of the so-called “pink police state.”) Or, when those on the right label their antagonists on the left Stalinists, Monika’s story shows they’re engaging in useless and misleading hyperbole. (We might call this the counter-Edgar interpretation.) In the realm of tenuous contemporary analogies, wherever there are Stalinists, there must be Nazis around the corner. Enter Anton, the creator and showrunner of Blue Lives, whom the narrator meets at a Berlinale party. They strike up a conversation and spend the night out with Anton’s friends, drinking and eating Turkish food, which they disdain. The auteur of the cop show that uncovers the zero-sum state-of-nature war of all against all under the polite veneer of modern US life turns out to be (surprise!) a trollish racist. Ths slick Hollywood operator and not-so-crypto-Nazi is immediately recognizable as a parody of Steve Bannon, and when the 2016 election becomes the backdrop of the action late in the novel, there’s Anton on television among the Trump inner circle.

Red Pill is a funny and suspenseful novel, dense with ideas, deliciously plotted, and generous with its satirical acid. Of the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novels, it has the sharpest cultural comedy (Lipsyte’s comedy being both more relentless and broader, Millet’s veering into its own neo-biblical reality). Kunzru’s last novel, White Tears (2017), began as a comic portrait of a pair of privileged white hipster blues aficionados in Williamsburg and took a turn into the ghost-story genre, as the pale modern avatars of cultural appropriation were haunted by their ancestors’ legacy of exploitation during slavery, through Jim Crow, and up to the present days of mass incarceration and private prisons. In White Tears the schism between successive styles—from realism to magic realism—had a clear moral force. It’s hard to say the same about the conclusion of Red Pill, which dissipates some of the tension the book has gathered along the way, though in a manner that remains true to the nature of its shiftless critic narrator’s flimsy personality.

The novel’s final third follows the narrator through a nervous breakdown triggered by his encounter with Anton and set in motion by an incident at a settlement of Syrian refugees near the Deuter Center. The narrator goes there wanting to give some money and the coat off his back to a father and daughter he’s seen on the street. Through the fog of the language barrier, the father mistakes his intentions and believes he’s trying to buy his daughter from him. The police are called and the narrator is asked to leave the Deuter Center. Instead of flying home on the ticket booked for him, he goes to Paris, where Anton is speaking at a film screening, and confronts him during an audience Q&A. His remark is a classic “more comment than question,” to the effect that the purpose of Blue Lives is to soften up the public for a coming time when the common folk will be ruled by “cognitive elite” overlords. Anton is dismissive: “Cultural Marxism has filled your brain with worms.” The incident blows up in reactionary spaces online. Our hero moves from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, out of touch with his wife and losing it, all the while obsessively checking the internet and reading posts by Anton’s presumed sock puppets and his alt-right fanboys, some of them racist posts about himself. Finally he treks to Anton’s retreat in the Scottish Highlands, the place where the evil auteur practices his Nazi yoga, and is arrested for trespassing.

The novel’s denouement takes place in Brooklyn, where the narrator has been compassionately if uneasily welcomed back by his wife and daughter. Its last scenes include a rather perfunctory rendition of election night 2016, which Kunzru spikes with invocations of “The Masque of the Red Death.” The narrator has learned to hold his tongue about the Democratic candidate:

It doesn’t seem useful to voice my reservations about Clinton, to make the kind of remark I might have made last year or the year before, to use the words baggage or neoliberal, or say, as I did once at a dinner party, that “she’s just the mask that established power is wearing right now,” because it’s obvious that her opponent is worse in almost every conceivable way, malevolent, vicious and unstable. He is a gate, a portal through which all manner of monsters could step into our living room. The status quo, bad as it is, looks better than the alternative. Rei and I have always differed on the subject of electoral politics. She says I use cynicism as an excuse to do nothing. I say—well, it doesn’t matter what I say, or used to say. Now, I say nothing.

It was the narrator’s encounter with Anton and subsequent breakdown that made him familiar with those “monsters,” and led him to believe that “somehow I bear responsibility for this, that I am the channel, the medium through which this toxic waste is flowing.” This is of course self-aggrandizing nonsense, but by now we know that the narrator’s interpretations of the world aren’t entirely reliable. Yet there is an undeniable logic to the unsatisfying ending of this otherwise very satisfying novel. The narrator’s red-pilling, his recognition of the world’s previously hidden fascist dark side, has allowed him to shed his vestigial Gen X cynicism and become a good neoliberal. (Bernie Sanders is never mentioned.) The red pill has had blue-pill effects. It’s an anti-Houellebecqian finale, a sudden elevator ride up from the abyss. The narrator is no longer a semi-feral freelance writer but a domesticated husband and father. His bourgeois assimilation is complete. Call it a centrist-pilling. Or a pink-pilling. If the pussy hat fits . . .

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in Brooklyn.