“Red Pill” is a disconcerting tale of obsession

Red Pill. By Hari Kunzru. Knopf; 304 pages; $27.95. Scribner; £14.99

THE NAMELESS narrator of “Red Pill”, Hari Kunzru’s sixth novel, is a Brooklyn-based writer who, early one January, leaves his wife and young daughter for a three-month residency at a scholarly centre in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. He expects a retreat—part cultural, part meditative—offering peace and solitude in which to complete a book. Instead he finds a place which emphasises teamwork and monitors his productivity in a communal workspace. Rather than play by the rules, he eschews human interaction and abandons his labours to take long lakeside walks or stay in his room binge-watching “Blue Lives”, a violent American cop show.

One night he ventures further afield and attends a glitzy film-festival party in downtown Berlin. There he meets Anton, the creator of “Blue Lives”, and during a fraught conversation he challenges his new acquaintance about the show’s nihilistic outlook and brutal content. Later, Anton and his cronies candidly air their alt-right views and then humiliate the narrator, igniting a burning desire for a showdown to recover his lost pride. So begins a dark journey in pursuit of justice and meaning which lays bare his soul and threatens his sanity.

This is a tense, absorbing tale of paranoia and dislocation, madness and obsession. The atmosphere is unsettling. Wannsee is chilly and bleak; the narrator’s gloomy strolls include both a visit to the house where the Nazis planned the Final Solution and repeated pilgrimages to the grave of Heinrich von Kleist, a Romantic writer who killed himself and his “death partner”. Even in his own room the narrator comes to suspect he is being watched through hidden cameras.

At the end of Mr Kunzru’s previous novel, “White Tears” (2017), the reader was made to wonder if its protagonist was unhinged or merely unreliable. In this book there is less ambiguity about the narrator’s precarious state of mind. “I’m going to be living rent free in your head from now on,” Anton tells him with malicious glee, unaware of the depth of his fixation and of the anxieties suffered by disaffected Americans like him.

“Red Pill” lacks the scope and invention of Mr Kunzru’s time-travelling, multi-vocal novel “Gods Without Men” (2011). It takes a while to gain momentum. But when Anton appears and jeopardises the narrator’s equilibrium, the novel changes gear, opening up to illuminate other perspectives and explore the trials of pursuing truth and reason in a hostile world.


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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/09/28/red-pill-is-a-disconcerting-tale-of-obsession
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