Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

UK cover to Red Pill, featuring Heinrich von Kleist, whom Kunzru identifies as a Romantic-era incel

There’s something of a war of genres going on in Hari Kunzru’s 2020 novel Red Pill. On the one hand, the tone (somewhat distanced and ironic) is very much that of a literary novel, as is the protagonist (a middle-aged writer finding it difficult to get going on his latest book). You can even narrow down “literary novel” to “midlife-crisis novel”, if you want to get specific. But I was drawn to the book by the other genre it suggested, that of psychopolitical thriller. For, whilst the (unnamed, I think) narrator unsuccessfully ensconces himself as a writer-in-residence at the Deuter Centre in Berlin, he becomes obsessed with Blue Lives, an ultra-violent, ultra-nihilistic TV cop show. When he later meets the creator of that show, Gary Bridgeman, a.k.a. “Anton”, he learns that the man is utterly invested in the conspiratorial, right-wing-extremist views of his lead character. Shocked by his own inability to immediately refute Anton — even, finding himself mocked by the man and his cronies as a caricature of a liberal, left-leaning “Social Justice Warrior” — our narrator’s incipient midlife crisis turns into a full-on breakdown, leading to his following Anton to a Paris film premiere to try and get the last word, and then tracking down Anton’s secret hideaway cabin off the coast of Scotland.

And this is the point at which the war of genres is decided. In a thriller, you’d get a showdown between Anton and the narrator, mixing idealistic back-and-forth with bouts of fisticuffs. Our hero would vanquish both Anton the man and his extremist views in one four-knuckled blow. But we don’t get that ending. I won’t give it away, but the ending we do get is much more muted and internalised, of exactly the sort you’d expect from a literary novel, and a literary midlife-crisis novel at that.

What made me want to write about Red Pill, though, was the feeling that Kunzru was presenting a sort of allegory of the moral battle going on in Western culture at the moment. Both the writer-narrator and the literary novel genre he belongs to are, in a way, hitting something of a crisis. Their distanced, ironic tone has become a worldview, a slightly too-knowing one in which realism is best achieved by everything being that little bit disappointing — every relationship just that little bit distanced, every experience that little bit as-expected, every interaction just a little bit humiliating, every self-revelation one of inadequacy. And, like the narrator’s attempts to start a new book, this lacklustre worldview (only exacerbated by the way his success as a writer cushions him from the harsher realities of life) soon gives way to the base pleasures of something a little more stimulating: violent-but-moreish TV. It at least has some life to it.

French nihilist philosopher Emil Cioran

(Blue Lives, though fictional, reminded me in some ways of True Detective, in that its creator puts nihilistic literary quotes into the mouths of its lead characters. With True Detective it was Thomas Ligotti; with Blue Lives it’s the Comte de Maistre, Schopenhauer, and Emil Cioran. But there’s also an element of Game of Thrones there too, in the violence and moreish storytelling. And later, we learn that Anton has started up a fantasy TV series, called Spear of Destiny.)

To underline what’s going on with the narrator, we get the story-within-a-story of Monika, born in Communist East Berlin, whose youthful rebelliousness found a brief burst of expression in her days as a drummer in a (non-state-approved) punk rock band. But the Stasi put a stop to that, effortlessly taking all that made her life worth living away from her, till she’s left isolated and cynical in a world she no longer cares about. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall doesn’t end it for her. (I’m tempted to add this as part of the allegory, as the constant surveillance under the Stasi, and the way everything you say in Communist Berlin is immediately misunderstood, politically, in the worst possible way, can’t help coming across as a reminder of certain tendencies on those platforms of self-surveillance, social media.)

Monika’s life gets crushed by the Stasi; the narrator’s life gets crushed by, frankly, his lack of any really vital connection to anything. (Despite having a family he supposedly cares about.) It may seem odd to equate the Stasi with the distanced, ironic tone of the literary novel, but, given enough time and exposure, both seem to have the same deadening effect.

And then along comes Anton — dark-souled, outspokenly racist, despicably self-centred and utterly privileged by his success — and, rancid though he and his beliefs are, there’s something living about him the narrator lacks. Why else is the narrator so drawn to him? Like the Jungian Shadow he surely is, Anton effortlessly takes up residence in the narrator’s mind (who has to, at one point, explicitly point out that this isn’t to be taken as literally as it occurs in Fight Club, after which Red Pill can’t help but feel as though it’s under that other book’s shadow).

When it comes down to it, our narrator just doesn’t have the energy, the life, the conviction, to defeat Anton. However much better his morals are, it’s the livingness he lacks. (This all reminds me of what I wrote about the late-60s films Blow-Up and Performance, in both of which artists find a new lease of creativity after a brush with the world of violent crime. Here, the narrator fails to find that new lease — but the big changes like redemption and rebirth are, in a way, precluded by this being a literary novel, which can’t allow itself to believe in such things.)

All this makes me think that a literary novel like Red Pill will never be able to provide an answer to this particular malaise of our times. The literary novel used to be a thing of danger and intellectual acuity — just think of Joyce’s Ulysses or Ballard’s Crash — but this sort of book doesn’t have the oomph in it for the fight, and that lack of energy feels almost built in to the genre. Would a thriller have done better? It might have, but simplistically, without the necessary intellectual arguments. A comedy might work, though it would have to be both blunt and acidic in equal measures. I’d like to say, perhaps something like Armando Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin — but, just look at how little of an effect The Thick of It had on politics. (If anything, it just got thicker.)

Red Pill was enjoyable enough, but I think ultimately proved itself inadequate for the task at hand. The literary part of culture is, I can’t help thinking, too mired in irony, distance, and the need to avoid any sort of real conviction, to be able to face something as darkly-vitalistic, darkly-mythic and darkly-powered by wilful ignorance as Anton and his real-life equivalents.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling

Giles Greenfield’s cover for the UK hardback

The word “fire” in the title of the fourth Harry Potter book (published in 2000) immediately makes me think of tests and trials, the idea of something passing through flames and emerging proved and tempered. Books about youngsters who learn they have magical powers are often stories of initiation, as with The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider (recently dramatised on CBBC). But Harry learned he had magical powers in book one, and this is book four, so why is this theme of initiation being highlighted now?

In a way, this is a point conceded by Goblet of Fire as, instead of providing a new task of initiation, it gives us a summary of the previous three books. Harry’s name is, unbeknownst to him, put in for the Triwizard Championship, and he finds himself thrust into the limelight — just as he was when he first arrived at Hogwarts, and found everyone knew his name because of his role in the downfall of Voldemort. As a result, he’s put through three tasks, which could be reminders of the three previous books, and so of tasks he’s already faced. First, he has to get a golden egg guarded by a dragon — just as, in the first book, he had to acquire the Philosopher’s Stone before Voldemort could use it. Second, he has to rescue “what you’ll sorely miss” from the depths — in this case, his best friend Ron Weasley from the depths of Hogwarts Lake, but in the second book it was his future wife Ginny Weasley from the depths of the Chamber of Secrets. In the third task he has to get through a dangerous maze — and a maze being a sort of prison, this recalls the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, not just metaphorically, but also because the maze contains, for Harry, a Dementor, or a Boggart-appearing-as-a-Dementor, both of which featured in that third book.

Art by Kazu Kibuishi

So what does The Goblet of Fire add to the mix, rather than just being a reminder of how far Harry has come? An important part of initiations isn’t just the trials you go through, but the fact that they’re acknowledged by the community as a whole. Initiation in whatever form — into adulthood, into an organisation — is a public announcement as much as it’s an inner transformation, and here we get a couple of acknowledgements (aside from his very publicly winning the Triwizard Championship) that Harry has made the grade. Dumbledore says to Harry:

“You have shouldered a grown wizard’s burden and found yourself equal to it…”

And this comes after, earlier in the book, Harry allowed himself his most open admission of his child-state so far:

“What he really wanted (and it felt almost shameful to admit it to himself) was someone like – someone like a parent: an adult wizard whose advice he could ask without feeling stupid, someone who cared about him, who had had experience of Dark Magic…”

The second acknowledgement comes from Dumbledore’s opposite, Voldemort, when he and Harry square off in a graveyard:

“And now you face me, like a man… straight backed and proud, the way your father died…”

Art by Brian Selznick

Tales of initiation often have a presiding Magus figure to lead the protagonist through the process and arrange the tests and trials. There’s Prospero testing Ferdinand in The Tempest, and Sarastro in a similar role in The Magic Flute; the “Valerie” section in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is one of the most powerful examples, for me, with V himself as the puppetmaster; and later, we get a more ambiguous version in John Fowles’s The Magus. Who is the figure presiding over Harry’s initiation? It ought to be Dumbledore, but it isn’t, because one point about Harry’s initiation in this book is that it comes too early. He’s too young to enter the Triwizard Championship, and he’s too young to face the very real dangers his initiation leads him into — but so much of the series is about Harry being thrust into situations too dangerous or testing for one so young, first of which is Harry’s parents being killed by Voldemort when he was still a baby. No, the presiding figure for Harry’s initiation is Voldemort, and if there’s a dark figure presiding over an initiation, any actual initiation that occurs is a by-product of the process, not an intention. Voldemort, after all, doesn’t want Harry to come into his powers; he wants to kill him. Harry’s successful initiation is a side-effect of Voldemort’s failure.

(And anyway, there’s another necessary element that makes for a full initiation, so it’s still not complete. That’s left for the next book, The Order of the Phoenix.)

It’s an interesting theme of the series, how evil and good can’t help being intertwined. The link between Harry and Voldemort — in the way Harry’s scar hurts when He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named is doing, or thinking about doing, something particularly evil, and the way Harry dreams about what is actually happening to Voldemort — recalls, for me, Mina Murray’s link with Dracula in the second half of Bram Stoker’s novel. Both Mina and Harry are unfinished victims, and this unfinishedness has unintended consequences, giving them insights into their victimisers that leave their enemies just slightly vulnerable. Evil, which thinks only about itself, discovers its weakness in the fact that it can’t help being linked to others.

Art by Jonny Duddle

But, with all this talk about initiation, does Harry “come into his powers” at all? Is Harry any good as a wizard? It’s clear that Hermione is the most capable wizard. Ron is the most klutzy. Harry generally tends towards the Ron end of the scale, except in two ways. One is that, when faced with the darker extremes of magic, he tends to come through. He might not be able to levitate a pillow to its intended location, but when he’s in desperate straits — and when his anger, determination, or sense of what is right is activated — he can pull off some pretty advanced magic. He might not be able to mend his own glasses, but he can repel a horde of Dementors.

The other factor in Harry’s ability as a wizard comes not from his own powers, but the power of others. Time and time again Harry gets through a task or solves a problem by getting help from others. And this might seem, if you’re viewing him as the traditional type of man-alone hero like James Bond or Conan, as a weakness, but it’s quite obviously a tremendous strength. Voldemort is the loner, the one who’d rather kill other people than have to rely on them; Harry is constantly winning loyalties and friendships, all of which pay off. And at the end of this book, it’s precisely because Voldemort has killed so many people and Harry has killed none that Harry escapes with his life.

eBook cover art, by Olly Moss.

The theme of memory magic which I mentioned in my Mewsings on the second book as being important in the series is less so here — even though this is the book that introduces the most important aspect of memory magic, Dumbledore’s pensieve, with its ability to store and share memories — but the wider theme of how a community’s “memory”, its history, and even the way it interprets the present, can be skewed, starts to become a lot more prevalent in The Goblet of Fire. First we have Rita Skeeter, who wilfully twists everything that’s going on into a tabloidese version so removed from the truth it sounds unbelievable, only people do believe it (even Mrs Weasley gets turned against Hermione because of it). And then we have Cornelius Fudge, head of the Ministry of Magic, who we see actively recasting the rebirth of Voldemort into something more acceptable: the actions of a single madman, and therefore nothing to worry about.

Previously in the series I’ve highlighted dangerously neutral characters like Ollivander the Wand Vendor who seem to revere power over goodness. (And here we get Crouch Senior, who despite being vehemently opposed to Voldemort, is “as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark side”, and who allowed the use of Unforgivable Curses on those merely suspected of being Death Eaters.) With Cornelius Fudge, though, we see someone with power (he’s Minister for Magic, after all), who’s unwilling to use it, as doing so would upset the status quo. He’s the archetypal “good man who does nothing”, a passive neutral whose passivity empowers those who are prepared to actually use their power.

Art by Jim Kay

Goblet of Fire, despite being the longest book in the series so far, is also the most tightly and satisfyingly plotted. And it features the darkest turn yet, with the moment Harry and Cedric appear in the graveyard feeling like a real switch into bleakness and evil. The book’s big revelation — that all of this was plotted by Voldemort — feels like it’s saying that, despite Harry’s getting through the previous three books and defeating Voldemort each time, it was all for nothing, because Voldemort won this time. All of Harry’s previous victories, then, can seem to have been falsified in this book, as can all the time we’ve spent with the wonderfully battered and cranky “Mad Eye” Moody, who would be my favourite character in the book, if only it hadn’t turned out not to have been “Mad Eye” Moody at all.

What happens after an initiation, a passage through fire? After initiation, one is a member of a group; after passing through fire, one is reborn. Both aspects are acknowledged, I like to think, in the title of the next book, The Order of the Phoenix.

Ashe of Rings by Mary Butts

First UK edition

Written between 1918 and 1919 (or perhaps started as early as 1916, according to her biographer Nathalie Blondel), Mary Butts’ first novel, Ashe of Rings, went on to have a somewhat drawn-out publication history. The American modernist journal The Little Review (which serialised Ulysses between 1918 and 1921), began serialising it in 1921, but stopped after 5 chapters. It was published in full in 1925 in Paris by Three Mountains Press (for which, as with The Little Review, Ezra Pound was an editor), and then in New York in 1926. It was only in 1933 that Butts’ novel — by this time slightly revised, and with an author’s afterword — was published in the UK, by which time she had other books published, including a second novel.

Ashe of Rings is in three parts. In the first, set in 1892, we follow Anthony Ashe’s return to his family home of Rings, a country house named after a three-tiered earth-mound topped with sacred stones in its grounds. (Butts based this on Badbury Rings in Dorset, of which she later wrote that “a great part of [my] imaginative life was elicited by it and rests there”, in “Ghosties and Ghoulies”, an essay on the supernatural in fiction first published in The Bookman in 1933.) Ashe knows he must provide an heir, someone to be guardian to Rings when he dies, and sets about choosing himself a wife on entirely utilitarian grounds. (His lack of emotional regard for the woman he marries, a local called Muriel Butler, is signified by the fact that he requires her to change her first name to Melitta once she’s married.) Melitta provides him with a daughter, Vanna Elizabeth Ashe, but by the time she follows that with a son, she’s in the midst of an affair with another local landowner, Morice Amburton, and it’s unclear if the boy is an Ashe or an Amburton. (To make matters worse, she slept with her lover on the sacred mound of Rings, making it a double slap in the face to Ashe.) Ashe dies soon after; Melitta marries Amburton, and Vanna, the girl who ought to be the new guardian of Rings, is sent off to a boarding school, and after that is given a small annuity, to keep her away from Rings.

Badbury Rings

In the second part, Vanna — known to her friends as Van — is grown up and living in moderate squalor in a London wracked by the First World War, making what money she can by various means including working in the nascent film industry. She occasionally comes to stay with a friend, Judy Marston, who’s having an on-off affair with a Russian painter, Serge Fyodorovitch. Judy, it turns out, is a rather cold and selfish woman who leaves Serge as soon as a more profitable partner turns up (the son of Morice Amburton, Peter, who has returned somewhat shellshocked from the war). Van nurses Serge through a post-breakup fever, then decides to take him on her first return to Rings in her adult life.

It’s only in the third part that things perked up, for me. Van begins to assert her guardianship of Rings, while Judy, using the wounded Peter, tries to oust her. Van now sees her former friend as embodying the sort of dark forces that are behind the war now raging throughout Europe:

“Have you known anyone who loves the war as Judy loves it?”

The Little Review, Jan-Mar 1921, where the first instalment of Ashe of Rings appeared

Rings itself, with its three-tiered mound and sacred stones, its mythic history tying it to Morgan Le Fay, druid priests, a witch called Ursula who wrote a strange book, and Florian Ashe who was crucified on the grounds by angry locals, has the air of a sacred place. Anthony Ashe called it “a priestly house, like the Eumolpidae” (these being the people who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece), while Van says it’s “a place of evocation… where the shapes we make with our imagination find a body”. So, the battle for control over it has to be a magical one — or, rather, a Magickal one, because Mary Butts was a onetime disciple of Aleister Crowley, being named Soror Rhodon in his Argenteum Astrum order, and staying for a while at the Abbey of Thelema at Cefalu. (Which she came to hate, because of the lousy living conditions and poor sanitation, and which left her with a heroin habit — while Crowley hated her back, calling her “a large white red-haired maggot” in his autobiography, but nevertheless saying how grateful he was for her help in the writing of his Magick (Book 4)). There’s no summoning of demons or flinging bolts of magical lightning; rather, the confrontation between Van and Judy is through a symbolic (but still fraught) power-play on top of Rings late one night.

The Little Review, Sep 1921, with the second instalment of Ashe of Rings

Prior to this third part, I found the style of Ashe of Rings a bit too impressionistic and flighty, driven forward by a sort of impatience with words and almost no attribution of dialogue. The characters seemed distant, their outbursts of passionate speech more like a pose than human passion. But this element is very much of its time. Ashe of Rings is a World War I novel, set during a time when, for that generation, life probably seemed both incandescent and fleeting, full of brief bright moments amidst a welter of turmoil and darkness. Butts calls it “the world of the next event” — a world sustained by nothing but a chain of sensations — but nevertheless it was hard to really feel that any of the characters had any depth to them, let alone believe them when they say they love one another (and the next moment say they hate one another).

On a deeper level — on the Magickal level of its plot — this is a novel about a new generation — or part of one, a tribe, perhaps — trying to find its place in a world caught between old, outdated traditions, and industrial levels of darkness and death. How to define this tribe? In its own words it is chic, exotic, damned, wearing “scandalous, bright clothes”. Like Valentine Ashe (Van’s younger brother), it’s “an attenuated exquisite” who:

“Won’t play games. Acts in Greek plays. Keeps Persian cats. All he can do is ride and sail a boat. Worships your ghastly old manor. Goes in for science. Reads German…”

But also it’s a group that understands the sacredness of Rings — perhaps, understands sacredness at all — and though it has to redefine that sacredness in new terms, as those of its forefathers no longer work, it knows it must do so, because of the forces ranged against it: those who have sided with power, with greed, and with the War. As Peter Amburton, allied to those dark forces, says:

“I went out to the war. There I saw what life is. When I come back, I find you people still here… We’re going to clean you out of the world. That’s what the war’s been for.”

I was intrigued into reading Ashe of Rings because of Mary Butts’ being part of the neo-romantic movement of the interwar years, who sought to find new meaning in a rootedness in the English landscape, its folklore, and its magic. This made me think of both the new rise of Folk Horror, and of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor, which belongs to the same time. Ashe of Rings has some interesting resonances with Lindsay. It was written in 1918 to 1919 in Cornwall and London — so, in the same place and time as Lindsay was writing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus. And there’s one snippet of Rings lore Van mentions that hints at another Lindsay novel, The Haunted Woman:

“…there is a tower in Rings. In the tower there is a lost room… In Ursula’s day the room disappeared. No one has found it again. Only once in a while we walk straight into it.”

Mary Butts in 1919

Ashe of Rings has a few autobiographical touches. Like Van Ashe, Mary Butts’ father died while she was still young, after which her mother sent her off to boarding school and remarried. Mary was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a government clerk best known for being William Blake’s main patron, and in the house where she grew up there were a number of Blake’s paintings. Mary’s mother, though, sold these soon after the father’s death, and all this must surely have coloured Van Ashe’s relationship with her mother in the novel, who at one point she characterises as being “an almost infernal power”, drawing her “back again into the formulas of childhood”.

In her 1933 afterword, Butts calls the novel “a fairy story, a War-fairy-tale occasioned by the way life was presented to the imaginative children of my generation”, and one which was written under the “overwhelming influence of Dostoevsky”.

It was only in the third section that it really caught fire for me, but enough so that I now want to read her next novel, Armed with Madness (1928), which apparently mixes interwar bohemianism with the Grail myth.