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.
(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.