Somebody’s Paying Attention

Red Pill’s Blue Lives

Still from Tatort.

Hari Kunzru. Red Pill. Knopf, 2020.

The writing of fiction premises a shared mooring in certain social facts. What happens when such consensus is dissolved—through fractionalization, the willful spread of lies, or the achievement of the former by means of the latter? Though it will take some time for them to become the subject of literature, the events of January 6 themselves present an object lesson in exactly this sort of dissolution. The storming of the Capitol resulting in the deaths of four of Donald Trump’s supporters as well as a police officer yielded a media spectacle that verged throughout on the unreal. Something in the elaborate costumery and foiled eleventh-hour plot of our villain seemed to have been anticipated dozens of times before, in logic if not episode. It’s not that you couldn’t make it up, but rather that any such invention would be redundant. Fiction’s usual vocation had, it felt, migrated into the fabric of the political field.

The catastrophic deus ex machina out of nowhere is as much a failure of craft as it is a triumph for Trumpism. And for any serious depiction of our social present, the fact of general catastrophe can’t but pose deep-seated problems for narrative. Ranking first among these is causality. What is the proximate cause of right-wing radicalization, and how does one incite a radical? In more expansive accounts, certain aspects of our contemporary media environment come to be cited time and again. It now represents a commonplace (unoriginal for reasons of being too true) to decry the internet’s siloed nature, its dispersal of users across a number of mutually incommunicable spheres, platforms, and communities. To find oneself radicalized under such circumstances then likely represents an uneven and nonlinear development, charting progress in fits and starts as one makes one’s way through increasingly extreme tiers of initiation. Mostly what it seems to involve is staring at the computer. How then are novels to be written in a period when the old unities of scenario and character have been troubled to the point of near-total dissociation? These are the matters in which Hari Kunzru’s novel Red Pill is both implicated and interested.

At the center of Red Pill is Blue Lives, a fictitious police procedural TV show obsessively streamed by the book’s narrator, a pop literary scholar who has written a book on taste in which he argued “(not very insistently) that it was intrinsic to human identity.” Formally, the program is rote enough, analogous to The Shield in the way it details the misadventures of a group of police officers as they grow increasingly rogue: “The show’s cops were all members of a special unit and they’d lost their moral compass. They were now as bad as the criminals there were pursuing. Everyone—criminals and police—was in high-stakes competition with everyone else, committing acts of appalling violence.”

The show’s snappy episodic nature represents a welcome reprieve for the narrator during a period of indeterminate and formless drift. But certain questions assert themselves. Chief among them: the social consequences of entertaining a worldview in which the lines between law and order are operatively indistinct, obscured as they are by the fact of universal violence. The sense abides that the characters’ moral compass has been mislaid alongside that of the viewers, replaced by a more sinister kind of orientation. The suspicion that Kunzru’s character comes at last to entertain is that Blue Lives may be working to surreptitiously indoctrinate its viewership into a highly reactionary power politics by way of the narrative pleasure incurred in transgression, and by the bizarre asides during which the show’s characters opine in flowery, aristocratic terms about the darkness irreducible in the heart of man. That it all sounds faintly ridiculous may be more feature than bug.

Nonetheless, the narrator gets hooked on Blue Lives, though he finds it hard to tell what’s driving him: an impulse to suspiciously decode its arcane content, or sincere enjoyment? He becomes obsessed too with Anton Bridgeman, the charismatic “mind behind” the popular program, who is, it’s true, something of an enigma. We know, for instance, that Anton chooses to stuff Blue Lives’ script with a host of allusions to right-wing intellectuals throughout history. The novel would also have us suspect that this celebrity showrunner is active within the space of online hyper-reactionaries, as something between a pundit and an influencer. But what does influence even mean in a landscape crowded with sock puppet accounts and proliferating digital avatars? It is after all unclear to what extent it’s ever possible to locate a discrete person or intention lurking under any of the many disguises the internet has on offer. Codes decoded yield only all the more encoding, just as uncovering any one secret here brings about the discovery of a second and third. The central issue then becomes whether a familiarity with rhetorical tropes and the tools of discourse analysis are empowering to Kunzru’s protagonist at all, or if instead he has become merely skilled in recognizing the terms of a specifically 21st-century impotence.

Red Pill details its narrator’s forays into the contemporary political and media environments by way of Wannsee, the southwestern Berlin suburb where, in January 1942, a group of senior Nazi officials met to plan implementation of the Final Solution. The unnamed narrator has arrived in Wannsee to pursue a fellowship at the lakeside Deuter Center for Social and Cultural Research, an institute founded and endowed by an industrial chemicals magnate responsible for the manufacture of titanium dioxide: “the ubiquitous white pigment that brought light into the darkness of Germany’s postwar domestic spaces.”

The project Red Pill’s narrator proposes to complete at the Center is an analysis of lyric poetry, specifically the “lyric I”—that indeterminate locus of subjective feeling and attitude invoked when a poet decides to write in the first person. As he puts this, in somewhat recondite fashion: the lyric is “a textual technology for the organization of affective experience, and a container in which modern selfhood has come to be formulated.” He doesn’t know why, but he feels this study to be important and good. At the same time, he expects that his three months of board and per diem funding will enable him to get back in touch with himself, lifting him out of a long funk in which he’s been unable to be fully present for his wife and daughter back in Brooklyn. Absorption in long hours of solitary research concerning free self-expression should, he figures, prove just what’s in order.

Within the rules-bound universe of narrative prose, so different from lyrical meditation (which knows no plotting, let alone the old workshop principle of “stakes”), it’s clear that Kunzru’s protagonist will be frustrated in this ambition. Arriving at the Deuter Center, he is directed to a workstation carrel. In keeping with the founder’s philosophy, fellows at the Deuter Center are subject to an extreme experiment in intellectual accountability. Their shared office is open-plan. Their keystrokes are monitored, as is all progress toward their project’s completion. Even payment of the stipend may be canceled should productive hours dip below a target number, specified in the fellowship’s terms. All this in furtherance of the Center’s “research into the future development of a transparent public sphere,” a goal, we’re told dryly, that can be expressed in a single German word.

It’s natural then that—as in Jonathan Franzen’s Germany-set novel Purity—digital surveillance should be one of the features of present-day experience with which Red Pill has to deal. The narrator is long-habituated to writing in isolation, and he fears that these rude intrusions menace any possibility of his completing a monograph on that lyric I, whose whole existence is predicated on a freedom from others’ regarding stare. The research index that the narrator manages to complete is studded with the prefix self: “self-made,” “selfhood,” “self-knowing,” “self-conscious.” If it’s true that the lyric poem worked in part as the crucible of modern selfhood, Red Pill broaches the possibility that our current regimes of work discipline and user-generated internet sociality may well represent that particular selfhood’s eclipse. When Kunzru’s narrator visits the Center’s IT office and catches a glimpse of one of his research colleagues (naked and surveilled upon) displayed on the technician’s monitor, he can at last feel vindicated—though, stuck at the Center as he is, his psychological situation can only devolve. The novel’s crisis of identity then hinges upon the problem: under such conditions, what nascent mode of selfhood is to follow the old?

One grim answer is perhaps on offer in the form of Blue Lives. Kunzru’s narrator is a practiced and consummate viewer of television, capable of describing the show in precise detail—a satisfyingly robust right-wing ekphrasis matched in its level of fabulation and plausibility only by Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas. As might be expected in the slow creep of the conversion or radicalization narrative, Kunzru’s protagonist begins in apprehension before eventually becoming compelled. “After a lifetime of American police shows I probably wouldn’t have devoted yet more hours to watching plainclothes cops brutalize people,” he remarks, “had its tone not been so weird, so off.” The off tone has to do with the show’s subtext, largely consisting of smuggled-in monologues that subvert trope-laden expectations—the most notable of which is culled from the philosopher Joseph de Maistre. “The whole earth,” Blue Lives’ main character intones, straight at the camera, “perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar on which all living things must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without pause, until the consummation of things.” The on-screen detective then goes back to his work of torturing a suspect with an electric drill.

Blue Lives’ quotation of de Maistre, a royalist displaced during the French Revolution who spent his entire writing career arguing in defense of kingship by way of the hangman, finds formal echoes across Red Pill, which is studded with ominous repurposings of major and minor characters from European intellectual history. Heinrich von Kleist, an early 19th-century poet and dramatist whose grave rests in Wannsee, is plausibly recast as an incel before the letter—this both for his enervated body of work as well as the suicide pact that ended his life in addition to that of Henriette Vogel, a wife of a friend whom Kleist killed before turning the gun on himself. The contemporary experience of alienated young men finding their vocation in profoundly anti-social violence is shown hereby to have a precedent, someone in fact celebrated for his cultural contribution. Likewise, as far as the canon is concerned, some measure of our own troubles are staged as having been there from the first. Instead of the lyrical Rilke or stately Goethe, Kunzru’s narrator finds Kleist, one more angry young man in a world that’s known plenty.

For a character who believes that taste is “intrinsic to human identity,” the political engagements of culture high and low can be the basis of much consternation. Surely even the most disengaged of police procedurals is a vehicle for restitutive and conservative ideology: disorder is always caught out and dealt with by the hour’s end, even allowing for commercial breaks. The arc is satisfying, despite or even by virtue of its repetitiveness, one of the reasons that Germany’s own procedural Tatort has been able to run uninterruptedly since 1970 and now amounts to well over a thousand episodes. Blue Lives is different: the show’s narrative blurs any neat distinction between the forces of good and evil, detailing a cast of police officers whose forays into the criminal demimonde match in ferocity those of the murderers and drug dealers whom they’re notionally pursuing. Add to this the intermittent rhapsodic readings straight from the work of such figures as the famously counter-Enlightenment and antidemocratic de Maistre, and it’s clear that Anton Bridgeman has flipped the script.

Herein lies the novel’s titular red pill. Like White Tears—Kunzru’s previous book—Red Pill’s name repurposes an up-to-the-minute internet term. The two novels share other commonalities as well: White Tears stages a psychogeography of the Delta blues, marrying road trip narrative with ghost story in its exploration of contemporary music’s appropriative stake in Black experience. Red Pill effects a similar procedure, meting out its formal and conceptual hijinks in part through travelogue. One reading of Kunzru’s project—evidenced also by 2011’s Gods Without Men, whose action is set in several distinct historical periods and centered largely on one location in the American Southwest—is as a career-spanning attempt at writing toward a historical understanding of place. Red Pill complicates this project interestingly: the locale it ultimately undertakes to excavate is less Germany or even Berlin than it is the environs of digital space: the broad avenues of streaming platforms and forum culture down which the narrator falls, for purposes that are at first time-wasting before becoming decidedly harrowing.

Kunzru’s narrator invokes the titular phrase only elliptically, saying of Anton after the two have finally met at a Berlinale event midway through the book: “So much of what he said had that particular tone, that suggestion of double meaning. Come inside or stay in the dark, as if he were about to initiate me into a mystery, offer me the red pill.” The most famous touchstone here is of course The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves’s Neo is offered the choice to take the blue pill and remain in ignorance or else to take the red pill and be shown how deep the rabbit hole goes, while the contemporary reader can’t help but read the term as one of those amalgams of heterodox nationalist, white nationalist, and neo-reactionary signifiers that we’ve learned since the last presidential election to group under the rubric of the alt-right. Not coincidentally, Red Pill takes place during 2016.

Like many digital phenomena, the alt-right is hydra-headed and mercurial. It’s never where you last left it. Nor does it seem anyone calls it that anymore. By the time Hillary Clinton delivered her late-in-the-campaign speech on the topic of Donald Trump’s traffic with the “radical fringe,” most of its initiates were well on their way to talking about Frog Twitter in the past tense. Clearly for reasons of both form and content, writing the right-wing internet presents an enormous technical challenge: how to pull narrative momentum out of one of our more of these inscrutable and changeable imaginary communities, whose embattled idioms and platforms all advance at hellacious speed? Indeed, under such conditions, it seems possible that the priority Kunzru lends to a television show in the first place may even serve to date his book, slightly. In consideration of the velocity and pilling-capacity of user-generated content, TV can come to look positively quaint, by comparison, with its glacial production schedules and official license.

It’s felicitous, then, that Red Pill doesn’t approach the alt-right itself, but instead concerns a pilling experience that doesn’t entirely take. When the narrator finally meets Blue Lives’ showrunner, it’s apparent that Anton is unprepared to yield a single inch toward scrutability. “You quote a lot of things in Blue Lives. Heraclitus. Schopenhauer. Emil Cioran. That’s not exactly standard for a TV cop show. And as far as I can see you don’t talk about it in interviews, so it’s probably not just so you can look intellectual,” the narrator tells Anton, having cornered him at a society party where the two have run into one another, via an economical quirk of plot. Anton offers only, cryptically: “Somebody’s paying attention.”

This is exactly the sort of come-hither response that anyone possessing even passing familiarity with the dissident right should recognize—its flattery being that the reader has proved able to access the content beneath the willfully syncretistic cipher, to reach the latent behind the manifest. The narrator is here being praised for his skill in sussing out the substance beneath Anton’s too-knowing asides. The available metaphor for this kind of thing—a dog whistle—is a little confused. A dog whistle’s pitch is above the audible register; encrypted speech occurs right out in the open. And the margins of concealment wear increasingly thin: how else to make sense of Trump’s directive, at the September 2020 presidential debate, that the country’s Proud Boys “stand by”?

Whatever one chooses to call it, such a speech act requires definitionally that the speaker mean something different than what she or he (most often he) has said, and such is the rhetorical bid of Blue Lives. In person, Anton is as much a dog-whistling demagogue as he is a troll. In a classically trollish maneuver, Anton shows up to the Deuter Center shortly after his first conversation with Red Pill’s protagonist, now with friend in tow, the both of them disguised parodically as historians interested in touring the building. Anton asks to be shown the Center’s basement, a bunker dating back to the time of National Socialism, and the Center’s hapless director obliges. Over a brass arrow pointing due north, Anton performs a bizarre mock ritual, hand hung in salute, and declares himself “Magus of the North.” This becomes, through the second half of the novel, something of a catchphrase of his—the reference being to J.G. Hamman, a German irrationalist philosopher of the late 18th century who produced work under this pen name—to dizzying effect: just as the narrator becomes taken within his own detective work, the reader begins to get the sense that we too are being called upon to count names and to add up the text’s many abstruse reference points, in a kind of gamified internet-era spin on the systems novel’s paranoid reading experience. Anton’s speech continues in the same cosmological and eventually racist cast, with the showrunner decrying the pieties of technocratic governance before he is made to leave. The narrator meets the same fate, when he is disinvited, in hypercorrect institutional language, from further affiliation with the Center.

Red Pill is at its most successful and trenchant when it’s able to do this work of stuffing political archetypes—the demagogue, the troll—into a single character. In his review for Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen sees in Anton a clear spoof on Steve Bannon. A strength of Kunzru’s brushwork is that no one such explanation can be plausibly exhaustive here, and further examples multiply. One could just as easily read Anton as a stand-in for Curtis Yarvin, the Dark Enlightenment blogger and Silicon Valley menace who claims to have coined the term “red pill” in its current political valence, though he today writes of “clear pills.” (As if in lockstep with the ever-expanding spread of today’s pharmacological regime, pills on the internet propagate and grow. Like “based” or the Virgin-Chad meme, it’s a bit of rhetoric that has migrated from the far-right space and entered normie online parlance—and offline, too: at a Christmas party, discussing the death of Jeffrey Epstein, an acquaintance of mine described herself as Ep-pilled.)

Still, the novel has a uniquely strong grasp on the specific texture of 2016’s internet, with its apocalypticism and binge-watching—a neat prehistory to our own cultural and political present. The novel’s final portion is fittingly concerned with the narrator’s growing obsession with Anton, largely taking the form of cyber-stalking. The protagonist spending long hours in research and eventually landing on a “constellation of names,” all plays on the made-up Ernest Stürmberg: “E. Berg,” “Vonn Berger,” “Net70 St0rmbug,” “or a number of other Tolkienish variants.” Today, when some of the more prolific of the Dissident Right’s intellectual wing assume handles like Mencius Moldbug (Yarvin’s erstwhile pseudonym), it’s clear again that reality won’t soon be outdone by novelistic invention. All these usernames populate a variety of blogs and forums, and all seem to be coordinated in their efforts to harass Red Pill’s narrator, hurrying him toward the book’s denouement with his eventual nervous collapse on a Scottish island, where Anton keeps his summer home but is absent when the narrator arrives there for answers to his ill-defined questions.

If it can be granted that Red Pill’s cast of characters all fit into the stations situationally allotted to 2016’s lookers-on, the narrator probably bears some resemblance to Kunzru himself. That is to say, he’s a middle-class reader of books. His concern for the plight of the world is largely consigned to the watching of upsetting content, “crying over war videos” on his laptop. He knows political order to be fragile and has witnessed the vicissitudes of collapse firsthand in Germany’s migrant crisis, where one year later, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland will see unprecedented parliamentary gains. True enough that he’s on conversational terms with all the myriad issues, and indeed worries whether liberal democracy can withstand the challenges posed by resurgent populism, climate change, the mobilization of fascistic signifiers to ambiguous end. His specific problem is spectatorship. That is, in his being all too mutable a function of his media diet. The unstable self, at the whim of political forces and discursive games, seems instead to carry the day, to the detriment of that lyrical I we first learn of in the novel’s introductory portion. Being aware of this sea change is hardly sufficient to change its course, and what knowledge Red Pill’s narrator does enjoy, in the meantime, is anxious-making.

Red Pill’s angular structure draws to a close with the victory of Donald Trump. By the eve of the 2016 presidential election, Red Pill’s narrator can no longer dismiss Hilary Clinton as a figure who has merely donned “the mask that established power is wearing right now.” Recovering back home in Brooklyn, the narrator knows now that there are certain patterns of thought that his fragile psychic constitution no longer allows him to indulge. It’s a tendency of paranoia to find itself always vindicated, ascribing masks behind masks, and the narrator has learned from experience that, even if such convenient devices as plot represent an artificial reduction of complex reality, sometimes it is better just to stick to the plan—to let the established mask be, rather than to pursue changing guises into the nth instance. Of course, as history would have it, Clinton’s coronation misfires. The liberal-centrist vision that the narrator has finally come to assume is upset, the candidate whom “everyone expects” to win disappointed. While the narrator’s misadventures in the bulk of Red Pill constitute a never-quite-wholesale embrace of a grandiose Weltanschauung in which good is locked against evil in inexorable combat, the novel’s conclusion figures a more mature, depressive position. No longer is evil something that can be held in abeyance through many vigilant hours spent online, nor can it be jettisoned through obstinate insistence upon familiar terms, upon the scripted verities of common sense. Instead, when the narrator wakes up alongside his wife and daughter on Wednesday morning, he knows only that he has no choice other than to enter uncertainly an unpredictable world.

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