Red Pill by Hari Kunzru: A review
If you remember The Matrix, you may remember that the blue pill would give you a happy, if illusory, life, whereas the red pill would allow you to see the world as it really is. Reality versus happy fantasy: That was the choice. The title of this book is Red Pill and yet throughout much of the book, it seems as though our unhappy and unnamed narrator may have ingested the blue pill, although it certainly hasn't made him happy. But he definitely seems to be living in a fantasy world.
Our narrator is an essayist and teacher, a husband and father, living in comfort in Brooklyn. At least it should be comfortable, but he is suffering from an unspecified dread that has rendered him unable to write. His writer's block is complete and it begins to extend to other parts of his life. He imagines that he would be unable to protect his family should calamity arise. And calamity seems always just over the horizon. When he receives an invitation to a fellowship at a Berlin think tank, it seems like an answer to his problems. Surely in the rarefied atmosphere of a think tank, he will be able to write. He looks forward to a few months of relative isolation and peace and his wife is more than happy to see him go.
Unfortunately for our narrator, the think tank does not turn out to be what he had imagined. The visiting scholars must all work in a shared space and they have assigned seats at every meal. What they produce during their time in the workspace is closely monitored and logged. The narrator had looked forward to isolation and being able to work on his own. That's not the way this place works. Soon he begins to believe that he is being watched by hidden surveillance cameras in everything that he does. Paranoia becomes his default position.
In Berlin, he meets a man named Anton who happens to be a showrunner for a television cop show called "Blue Lives." His interaction with the man turns into a humiliating experience for him and the narrator, who is convinced that Anton is part of the surveillance of him, begins to stalk the man which takes him even farther down a rabbit hole into alt-right message boards and conspiracy theorists. By this point that blue pill has taken him far into fantasy land. The narrative continues in this vein until the narrator eventually ends up in a psychiatric hospital. Afterward, the narrator is able to take up his life in Brooklyn once again and the story ends in November 2016 at a party meant to celebrate Hillary Clinton's victory.
There were parts of this narrative that seemed absolutely brilliant to me and other parts that were a bit clunky. In other words, I found the book a bit uneven. On the whole, I enjoyed it. Kunzru really is quite a talented and creative writer. His background is in journalism and that seems to have afforded him an unsparing view of our current politics which is on full display throughout this book. The sense of dread that is pervasive throughout the narrative seems a result of that. The narrator's sense of dread persists and we are forced to admit that, even though one may be paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars