In Hari Kunzru’s novel Red Pill, the nameless narrator leaves Brooklyn for a residency in Berlin at the Deuter Center, where he hopes to finally write something ambitious that will dispel his secret fear of his own mediocrity. But that hope is dead on arrival.
The Deuter Center’s philosophy of ultra-transparency and the intellectual provocations of a fellow resident make the narrator at first self-conscious, then increasingly mentally unstable. Over the course of his nervous breakdown, our narrator moves into the orbit of an influential neoreactionary media figure, subverting his political and personal identity and loosening his grip on reality.
At Bookforum, critic Christian Lorentzen holds up Red Pill as “the Gen X Midlife-Crisis Novel in its purest form.” The novel’s theme of political disorientation, particularly liberal impotence and uncertainty in an age of reaction, also make it a likely prototype for Trump-era novels to come.
Hari Kunzru is also the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions, Gods Without Men, and White Tears, as well as the short story collection Noise and the novella Memory Palace. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Kunzru about liberals’ crisis of confidence, the far-right internet’s sense of humour, and how they collide in Red Pill and in real life.
Your new novel is called Red Pill. I think most of our readers are probably familiar with this term already, but can you give us a brief explanation of its origin and its shifting meaning? And while you’re on the topic, what was compelling to you about the idea of writing a novel that explores this phenomenon of red-pilling from multiple different directions?
“Red pill” is a term that comes to us from the film The Matrix. The hero is given the option between the blue and the red pill, and if he takes the blue pill, life will go back to normal, and if he takes the red pill, he’ll see the world for what it is, a hideous dystopia.
The idea has had a weird afterlife, starting with pickup artists who conceived of red-pilling as the idea that, if you understand how women supposedly think, then you’ll be able to manipulate them and you’ll be able to score. Men’s rights activists started using it as a term for a conversion in worldview, specifically a conversion against feminism. And eventually, you started to see people on forums talking about being “red-pilled on the JQ,” the Jewish Question, meaning believing the Holocaust was a lie.
The notion that interests me is that of a screen reality and an actual reality. I think that’s a common formation for people of all sorts of political persuasions. The notion that the world is an illusion and that underneath the surface lies some kind of deeper truth is a very deeply rooted notion for radicals of all kinds who are attempting to break through an established frame for viewing the world.
I wanted to play around with the idea of a complete breakdown and transformation of perspective. So I decided to create a fairly typical Brooklyn writer character whose frame of reference broadly fits with the acceptable New York Times opinion page version of the world, and to have him encounter an outside to that. First, this encounter with the outside takes the form of an anxiety that his assumptions don’t match up with reality. And then he has a much more direct confrontation with a cultural figure who is a propagandist for far-right views.
The writer assumes he will be able to dismiss this figure out of hand, but he realises he doesn’t have as much ammunition as he thought. This failure to provide answers precipitates a deeper breakdown in perspective alongside a mental breakdown.
I feel like in the Adbusters and CrimethInc. era, it was the Left that owned the idea of political red-pilling, even though it didn’t use that term. The whole “wake up, sheeple” thing was even a joke stereotype of leftists during the George W. Bush era, extending through Occupy with the Guy Fawkes mask thing. Since then, it seems that the Right has taken over this notion that people need to open their eyes to reality. Do you think that’s correct?
I think you can take it further back to situationism and the idea of the spectacle, the idea of capital being able to seamlessly project a phantasmagoric screen in front of us that we’re mesmerised by so that we don’t notice the social conditions we live under. That later Adbusters time was similar, but with an additional real lack of confidence in any economic solutions. It was a kind of retreat into media, the notion that, with our smart media analysis, we will cut through the spectacle and show you the real, and then change will happen.
As for the shift to the right, I think it’s hard for mainstream liberals to acknowledge their own structural positions of power. And one of the bastions of liberal power is the creation of media narratives. The right wing has found themselves very much on the outs.
I’m going to guess that the character Edgar, the combative right-wing intellectual at the Deuter Center who batters the narrator’s confidence, is inspired by a Jordan Peterson type. And I’ll guess that Anton, the ambitious far-right media creator the narrator meets halfway through the story who hastens his unraveling, is inspired by a Steve Bannon type.
Your protagonist is also a bit of a political archetype, but one that doesn’t really have a famous figure that we can compare him to, even though we all know him. He’s a liberal, but not a particularly devoted one. He’s cynical about the Democratic Party establishment, but his cynicism doesn’t move him to action. There’s a sort of self-involvement, or a laziness, or maybe a lack of confidence on his part.
And a lack of community. The main thing about him is that he never, at any point in this journey, thinks of himself in relation to others. It’s always about this interior set of resources. He’s a real liberal in that strict sense, one who can’t imagine being in relation to others, except perhaps his family.
To that point, there’s a meditation in the novel on his loss of male friendships over the years. He drifts away from his drinking buddies, and what he’s left with is a private world in which he works very hard to construct a self that he can feel proud to show off, from a distance.
Yeah, it’s an act of branding. Like so many people, he’s ended up as an individual cultural entrepreneur hustling in the identity marketplace.
By the end of the novel, our narrator is scared straight, you could say. His brush with the alt-right has left him depoliticised entirely, not even capable of his usual left-liberal chatter. He just wants to mind his own business.
To me, this felt like a comment on the domesticating effect of Donald Trump and the rising far right on left-leaning people without political communities or commitments, sort of cowing them into acquiescence to a state of politics they know is objectionable because they’re horrified by the alternative and have no other recourse.
In other words, fear of the Right without a link to the Left creates a sort of political paralysis that enables a status-quo liberal politics that’s incapable of taking on the Right.
The protagonist is this kind of disaffected character who thinks of himself as a waster. He says at one point that the only political slogan that ever meant anything to him was “Ne travaillez jamais.” This kind of refusal is as far as he’s gotten with his politics.
He’s married to a practically oriented human rights lawyer who has little time for his kind of hand-wringing and sees the way forward as support for an electable Democratic candidate. She’s all in for a Hillary Clinton presidency. And when he comes back into the home, having had a breakdown and proved himself in some way fundamentally untrustworthy, he no longer has any space from which to resist. He just has to go along with what the norm is. Of course, as we know from hindsight, in 2016, the normal crashes into things liberals had not fully taken account of.
Apparently, now Netflix has adapted J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. That guy made a ton of money scolding liberals about how little they understood their fellow Americans. And there’s a huge appetite still for that sort of liberal self-flagellation about being out of touch, coupled with a deep existential crisis that whatever your own feelings are, they’re always going to be inadequate, because somebody else is more authentic and feeling more deeply, and therefore should have more political agency than you.
Such a widespread crisis of confidence leaves a lot of gaps for very intelligent, very canny people to position themselves in. And that reminds me of the character of Anton. What kind of role does he play in the novel?
Anton is a generation younger than Steve Bannon, but he’s a political entrepreneur of the same type as Bannon, and he’s similarly somebody with a big platform — in this case, a TV guy who makes popular stories for mass consumption. Specifically, he makes this cop show called Blue Lives, which has a kind of ruthlessly cynical perspective on the world. The protagonist begins to suspect that this is a Trojan horse for social messaging softening people up to expect a world of Darwinian competition, the end of any possibility of collective life. Especially in the internet era, personas like this can easily emerge. The barrier to entry is very low.
It’s weird to watch the Democratic Party of 2008 reassemble itself as if it has a set of answers to the issues that we face now. The obvious untenability of that creates room for all sorts of other proposed solutions to come in. The elderly people who are running things seem to have no sense of just how much has changed, particularly for young people, since 2008. They assume that certain things are in place, such as the ability for young people to own a home or plan to transmit wealth to their children, that simply aren’t in place anymore.
In that gap of understanding, some people are moving left, and some people are moving right. It’s wide open in terms of alternative narratives. Many people have very few allegiances and could latch on to any narrative that was attractive enough. Just look at how conspiracy thinking like QAnon has spread like wildfire, and you realise how unanchored people are.
You couldn’t have known that Trump would lose the 2020 election when you were writing it, but the timing worked out such that the book kind of feels like an epitaph for the Trump era, even though the story itself ends just as the 2016 election is heating up.
I actually started it before Trump was elected. I’d spent years before that spending a lot of nervous, self-hating time on the far-right internet watching the chans assemble a young, vibrant right-wing culture. I also saw how invisible that was to other parts of my social circle. So that was my initial impetus, rather than anything to do with the administration.
As time went on, the 2016 election night ending arrived as clearly how the book needed to be structured — the private anxieties of the narrator becoming public. But it was always meant to be a book about silos, about the shock of having a view of the world that is fundamentally different from the next person over on the subway, because your information environment, reinforced by social media algorithms, is so radically different from theirs.
It’s a book about the breakdown of consensus reality, which is necessary for a public space-based notion of liberal democracy, and what that breakdown means for liberalism itself. And none of this will end with Trump. It won’t even end with Q. There will be another Trump and another Q. We’re going to have to deal with the effects of things we personally can’t even imagine believing in for a long time to come.
One of the things that precipitates the narrator’s mental breakdown seems to be his horror that he himself is vulnerable to lines of thinking that he finds morally repugnant or at odds with his deeply felt political identity.
When he encounters these right-wing ideas, he experiences a little shard of attraction, or at least an inability to instantly refute those ideas, that freaks him out. And I do think that’s a component of the liberal experience as it relates to the alt-right, and part of the revulsion and fear.
The far right today is all about the libidinal pleasures, about doing the transgressive thing and saying the quiet part loud. And one of the primary situations that a mainstream liberal finds himself or herself in is that there’s all this stuff they’re expected to keep a lid on because it’s bad and wrong. Liberals habitually root all political questions in personal guilt and innocence. So there’s a certain amount of sticking your finger in your ears and going “la la la” in order to feel a sense of comfort.
The most profound statement of Trumpism is this statement that “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” This is a rebuke of the liberal idea that feelings are the most important political metric: Do I feel guilty or innocent? Do I feel safe? Do I feel comfortable? Do I feel like I’m in the right? Trumpism doesn’t care.
There’s a scene in Red Pill where one character says to another, essentially, “That’s a racist opinion. You’re a racist,” and the other character responds, “I don’t care what you think. You can call me that, and it’s just meaningless to me.” So what’s a liberal’s next piece of ammunition after that appeal to feeling guilty? There’s nothing.
So often for liberals, things like naming and respect and representation function as diversions from the actual structural situation. Look at Biden’s new cabinet. It’s got some black people, some Latinos, we’ve got a woman of colour vice president, but no hint of left policy. So we have the pageantry of respect without any actual substance to it.
Right, and I think many liberals find that a bit hollow, even though they participate in it. So they’re vulnerable, in a way, when the Right shows up and says, “Wouldn’t it be fun to simply stop playing along?”
Yes, and people don’t want to think of themselves as the scolds. Right-wing frog Twitter has got the jokes. For all the time I was growing up, the far right was deeply humourless, just a bunch of kind of idiot skinheads with ideas about Jews they got from people who were two generations older than them. Now they’ve mastered the deployment of irony.
This online right views the liberal as an “NPC” or non-player character in a video game, just blank, and this type of thing really does unsettle people. People don’t want to be viewed like that. They want to be cool. And I think a lot of young, straight white men, in particular, want to be with the cool kids making jokes, instead of with the sincere people telling you that you can’t do stuff.
I would even venture to say that a lot of people who aren’t straight white men would be more attracted to the irreverence of right-wing politics, were it not for the fact that the actual content of those politics is constantly repelling them.
A lot of people are dissatisfied with an agenda whose horizon is symbolic recognition, but you don’t see as many women, gay and trans people, and people of colour gravitating toward the far right, because at a certain point, they’re going to hit a roadblock. The memes and the jokes, and the totally serious socially reactionary content that masquerades as trolling, are often at their own expense.
Exactly. That humour identifies everybody’s profound sense that the screen reality and the actual reality are not the same. The question becomes what politics comes in to fill that gap.
Meagan Day is a staff writer at Jacobin. She is the coauthor of Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism.
This article was first published in Jacobin. Read the original here.