“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe,” Morpheus tells Neo in the Wachowski Bros.’ 1999 film, The Matrix. “You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
It is withThe Matrix that the term “red pill” entered our vocabulary and later memedom as we grew into our collective, online consciousness, but the dilemma between living in blissful ignorance and confronting the truth about reality is nothing new. Neither is the idea that our reality might be simulated, or at least manipulated. From René Descartes’ Evil Demon to Gilbert Harman’s Brain in a Vat, thought experiments have often sought to tease out whether it is possible to trust our perception of reality, to determine whether we can know with certainty that what we seem to experience with our senses is an accurate assessment of some larger truth.
It is this larger truth that the far-right, emboldened by the emergence of a reactionary political class all too willing to stoke the flames of panic and prejudice, have laid claim to in recent years, claiming also, in the process, the term “red pill” to describe their process of awakening to uncomfortable realities they accuse the left-leaning of not wanting to come face to face with. British-Indian novelist
Hari Kunzru, author of five previous novels and PEN/Jean Stein Book Award finalist, addresses the intersection of such existential quandaries in his latest novel, aptly titled Red Pill.
The premise of Red Pill is simple enough; clichéd, almost. The unnamed narrator, a struggling writer suffering a dry spell, embarks on a retreat to clear his mind and restore his creative faculties. Any overused tropes end here, though, as Kunzru weaves an intricate fabric from a multitude of seemingly disparate elements — German romanticism, the legacy of the Third Reich, the Stasi, the European migrant crisis, the 2016 US presidential election — all of which come together to create this haunted tale that merges questions of privacy, transhumanism, the political ascendency of the Right in Europe and the US, and moral responsibility, among others.
Kunzru’s protagonist — a man of Indian heritage, married and father to a young daughter — is awarded a fellowship at the Deuter Center in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. If that latter name sounds familiar, it is because it served as the location of the eponymous 1942 Wannsee Conference, in which the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was discussed — a tragic and macabre past that weighs on the setting in much the same way the cold, stark, unforgiving weather does. Rather than use his fellowship to any industrious effect and develop his work on the concept of the self in lyric poetry, however, the narrator finds he is unable to fall in step with the center’s rather aggressive communal work policy, which dictates that he must research and write in the presence of others.
“My own screen would be visible to others… I would be visible from every angle. My body, my posture. I have developed a visceral dislike of being watched while I write, not just because the content might be private, but because all the things one does while writing that are not actually writing — stretching, looking out into space, browsing the internet — seem somehow shameful if they’re monitored by others. The feeling of being watched induces an intolerable self-consciousness.”
In between calls with his wife back in Brooklyn and visits to the grave of Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist, he binge-watches Blue Lives, a disturbingly violent police show that peppers its scenes of torture with obscure quotes, which the narrator believes might be intended as subtext.
“Blue Lives was fixated on the terror of their victims, as if it wanted to subject the viewer as thoroughly as possible to the experience of being at the mercy of an absolute, capriciously sadistic master. And every so often in the dialogue, I would notice another strange phrase or sentence, a line or two of elevated speech… I recognized some as quotations and every one was out of place in a naturalistic thriller. I came to suspect that they were an insider joke, the entire show just an elaborate illustration of some point of view of the writer, something to do with the world’s hopelessness. Look at what horrors are possible, was the message. The only rational response is despair.”
Interestingly, the fictional Blue Lives airs at a time in which another nihilistic group fixated with the brutalization of the body is filming its own horrors for the world to see. Although ISIS is not explicitly mentioned by name, the footage from “jihadi propaganda” videos is referenced in one of several instances in which the narrator juxtaposes death with spectacle, the dignity (and what he assumes to be the inherent human right) of privacy with violent and humiliating invasiveness. Meanwhile, his initial topic of investigation — the lyric “I” — suffers from his frustrated attempts to secure for himself isolation and, if he is being honest with himself, plain old disinterest.
“Deep down I had no real desire to understand how lyric poets had historically experienced their subjectivity. I wasn’t that interested,” he admits. “It was a piece of wishfulness, an expression of my own desire to be raised above the pleasures and pains of my life, to be free from the reigning coercions of a toddler, the relentless financial pressure of living in New York. I wanted to remain alone with myself as inwardness. I wanted, in short, to take a break.”
His desire for solitude and clarity is inexorably thwarted, and he happens upon surveillance footage that leads him to believe that residents at the center are being watched, even in (what ought to be) the privacy of their own rooms. It is thus that his paranoia at being spied upon and his preoccupation with the creator of Blue Lives, Anton, and the show’s underlying meaning converge to form the catalyst for his own descent into madness, mirrored, no less, by the poet Kleist, who also “had a crisis, brought about by reading Kant, who taught that the human senses are unreliable, and so we are unable to apprehend the truth that lies beneath the surface of things.”
He begs his cleaning lady, Monika, to tell him the truth about whether the center is spying on its residents, which leads to a rather long aside in the novel in which she recounts her terrible experiences at the hands of the Stasi, little assuaging his general sense of malaise and imminent doom.
The world events that unfold around the narrator are no more helpful at staying this spiral into psychosis. At the very outset of the novel, he acknowledges the role of chance in determining whether one is born into wealth or war, comfort or mortal struggle, also acknowledging the fragility of one’s current circumstances, tenuous and unpredictable. “Our very happiness made me uneasy,” he confesses. “It was a time when the media was full of images of children hurt and displaced by war. I frequently found myself hunched over my laptop, my eyes welling with tears. I was distressed by what I saw, but also haunted by a more selfish question: if the world changed, would I be able to protect my family? Could I scale the fence with my little girl on my shoulders? Would I be able to keep hold of my wife’s hand as the rubber boat overturned? Our life together was fragile. One day something would break.”
His position as a member of an ethnic minority in a white man’s world compounds this anxiety, which he sees reflected in a refugee father and daughter duo he meets at different intervals in the novel and desperately longs to help in some way. “It’s always people like us who go first,” he tells his wife.
When the narrator at last meets Anton, he is finally afforded the opportunity to ask the burning questions that have been consuming his thoughts — only the answers he receives are far from placating. His obsession becomes manic, and he follows the mind behind the show across countries, refusing to accept the man’s destructive vision of a future in which humankind is divided into two groups: one that fuses with technology to transcend animal limitations — an updated version of the Nazi take on Nietzsche’s Übermensch — and the other that is destined to slavery in service of the first.
Kunzru accomplishes several noteworthy things with Red Pill, not the least of which is following nihilistic philosophies (even those that do not designate themselves as such but instead, claim to hold a utopian vision for the future that involves culling ‘undesirable’ elements) to their logical endpoint. In striving to fabricate an artificial, ‘perfectionist’ version of ourselves, we ironically (or predictably, for anyone who is familiar with history) expose the very worst in our nature.
Kunzru also addresses the bedrock humanity hits in stretching philosophy that questions reality — to the extent it renders any cooperation based on that reality impossible — to its snapping point. If we cannot agree on basic premises and inalienable rights, what then?
The mental crisis that ensues from having the foundations of one’s belief system shattered is likewise accurately depicted: the world becomes unrecognizable, a simulation as it were. “The streetscape wasn’t real. The sidewalk, the passers-by, the cars, the clouds in the sky, all were elements in a giant simulation. The sunlight was not sunlight but code.”
The author excels in capturing the geist in alt-right circles, down to the language used. “Cultural Marxism has filled your brain with worms,” Anton tells the narrator, after the latter confronts the Blue Lives creator and accuses him of being on the wrong side of history with his morbid masterplan for the future. Using a term favored by conspiracy theorists who allege that progressives are using psychological manipulation to topple the natural order of the world, Anton essentially equates the narrator’s opposition to the erosion of basic human values with erosion of the values he personally believes to be enlightened. For that is what cultural Marxists do, according to the alt-right: They promote atheism, gay rights, feminism, all through the humanities faculties in universities and the media and all at the expense of the status quo.
Noteworthy is the Nazi preoccupation with the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, most of whom were Jewish. Another gem of an exchange between narrator and Anton: “Why are you promoting a future in which some people are treated like raw material? That’s a disgusting vision,” the narrator says, to which Anton responds, laughing: “I’m sorry it gives you sad feels.”
Perhaps the most remarkable features of this novel are its relevance to current events and the questions it raises with regard to the ethical frameworks we take for granted and within which we operate. If “privacy is the exclusive property of the gods,” as the narrator posits, is the impending class struggle between spies and those who are spied upon? Where will our steady handover of privacy in exchange for security lead to down the road?
If, again, privacy is the demarcating factor between the ruling and subordinate classes, what does it say about refugees on dinghies in the Mediterranean, whose lives and bodies are battlegrounds for political figures to build their platforms on? Is little Alan Kurdi, lying face down on a beach in Turkey, the ultimate spectacle, the ultimate “mockery of human dignity” that is simultaneously relished as a symbol, as the sacrificial animal on which humanity’s sins may be pinned, and disdained for its inconvenience?
In the novel, as in reality, the very real flesh-and-blood human lives of refugee father and daughter occupy a space in the background as the theoretical tug of war between Anton and the narrator occupies the foreground, and the parallels between a past that is never too far behind and a present that threatens to rouse those ugly ghosts are all too evident.