“The cruelty is the point.” They’re words made famous by an Atlantic headline about life under Trump, and they’re likely to ring throughout your head as you read Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, a twisty and disquieting novel that, despite what its title might suggest, is not about The Matrix. Kunzru doesn’t explicitly define his title, but anyone who’s been online lately likely doesn’t need him to—to be red-pilled is, in certain circles, to be enlightened to the perceived ways in which liberals and feminists are destroying the world. If you’re red-pilled, you’re probably wearing a red hat.
But Kunzru’s novel isn’t a book about being online. Not on its surface, at least. It begins with an unnamed author contemplating middle age, that “gentle downward slope into darkness,” before leaving Brooklyn for the Deuter Center outside of Berlin. There, as part of a fellowship, he’ll spend three months working on a book about “the construction of the self in lyric poetry.” Our cultured, hyper-literate protagonist is soon undone, however, by the center’s demand for full transparency. Fellows work together, eat together, socialize. Unable to write in such conditions, he hides in his room, binging seasons of a cop show, Blue Lives, that sounds like an even more violent and nihilistic version of The Shield. When he meets the show’s creator at a party, his obsession with its “mockery of human dignity” opens a path to madness that begins to look a lot like Twitter, consumed as it is by identity politics, fascism, and trolling.
Kunzru is wise to keep the narrative both rooted in the real world and mostly divorced from the current moment more specifically. By doing so, he’s able to isolate the behaviors inherent to the online culture wars—the baiting, the debating, the veils of humor—and view them through a historical lens. One section unspools the tale of informants in the German Democratic Republic, framing it in a way that speaks to modern ideas of “cancel culture.” The German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who’s buried close to the center’s grounds, is characterized by the protagonist as a 19th-century “incel.” He’s versed in the archetypes of those who identify as far right, but he’s also, like many navel-gazing liberals, completely incapable of speaking to them.
Red Pill is, in many ways, a book about the fragilities of liberalism and intellectuality, concepts that are so often rooted in lofty idealism that they can’t withstand the “invincible sarcasm” and “constant hints of transgression” that distinguish the Trump-era Republican, who believes in nothing except for triggering (and, yes, owning) the libs. It takes practically nothing for the narrator to accept the vacuity of his thesis regarding lyric poetry. Later, after being baited into calling an adversary a racist, he urges himself to “remember why I believed the things I did, and why I had a right, even a duty, to defend them.” After years of perceived comfort under Barack Obama, the actual content of his ideology has curdled into a stew of buzzwords.
But Kunzru’s story isn’t strictly a critique. Anybody who’s struggled with shitposting’s influence on modern discourse, the layered irony and perpetual smirk, will identify with the narrator. He worries he’s the butt of a joke he doesn’t understand. He obsesses over what he claims to hate. He wants life to be like a poem, despite all evidence to the contrary. Kunzru finds the humor and humanity in it all, but even as the story spirals into well-earned hysteria, he never downplays the severity of the mental derangement unfolding on both sides of the aisle in a post-truth era, nor the ways each can intersect in the realm of conspiracy. He delves so deep into it, in fact, that his ending, affecting as it is, can’t help but feel pat, another lofty ideal in an era that routinely shatters them. But maybe all resolutions feel hollow when the discourse has grown so alienating. What even is idealism in a world where cruelty is the point?
Author photo: Clayton Cubitt