Enter the Matrix

Red Pill
By Hari Kunzru
304 pp. Knopf. $28.

Are we living in a simulation?

Both Donald Trump and 2020, in general, felt like cruel experiments inflicted on America and the world, and perhaps the aliens, or the AI, or whatever it is controlling the simulation we might all be living in, tipped their hand a bit too heavily there. Donald Trump becoming president? Republicans accusing governors who’ve mandated that masks be worn in public because there’s a pandemic on of being fascist? (Or socialist — they can’t quite seem to get that straight.)

Come on. But seriously, what the hell is going on out there? When did America, in particular, lose its mind?

I heard Hari Kunzru interviewed on The New York Times’ Book Review podcast and he talked about much of this. The Alt-Right, Trumpism, the failings of liberal democracy, etc etc etc. I’m as interested in what appears to be the decline of western civilization as I am fearful of it, so I picked this one up … and I’m not sure what I think of it in the end.

Did I like it? Did I not like it?

I did like it, but at the same time I’m disappointed by what I felt were some very big missed opportunities.

This feels, in both style and content, much like a Michel Houellebecq novel, but without all the erectile dysfunction. Unfortunately, much of the skill is also missing.

Houellebecq is a master of melancholy, remarkable in his ability to take an incredibly prescient topic and play it out to its possible (and almost certainly horrifying) conclusion. He’s also unparalleled in his ability to set a mood. Even when we don’t like Houellebecq’s narrators — and we almost never do — we suffer from the same crippling anxiety, the same feeling of failure, that they do. It’s inescapable.

Here, Hari Kunzru has created a Michel Houellebecq narrator. The only difference is that while Houellebecq’s narrators tend to be sad, depressed, nihilistic, middle-aged white men, Kunzru’s narrator is a sad, depressed, nihilistic, middle-aged brown man. (Middle Eastern? Indian? I’m not sure it’s ever made clear, but the character clearly reads as Kunzru himself.)

Having accepted a fellowship to write at the Deuter Center in Berlin in the first half of 2016 (Kunzru states in the author’s note that this was meant to stand in for the American Academy in Berlin, where he spent the first half of 2016), our narrator settles in for what he hopes will be some longed for solitude and a way to recover from the crippling anxiety he’s been suffering lately.

Except it’s not at all like that, because the Deuter Center fellows are meant to work in the same room and have their meals together — all in the interest of transparency. Our narrator doesn’t like this one bit, and quickly gets on the wrong side of the staff who slip records under his door of how much time he’s spent writing in the shared space (not enough) and how many meals with the other fellows he’s missed (too many). He’s confronted on more than one occasion about this, and it’s suggested that the stipend he’s received to stay at the center might need to be paid back if he remains unwilling to acquiesce to their guidelines which, if he’d read the welcome packet, he would have been aware of.

Much like a Houellebecq narrator, Kunzru’s becomes slightly obsessed with a long dead, largely overlooked romantic, in this case, the writer Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist killed himself — having convinced the wife of his friend to form a little suicide pact with him, which might be the thing about him I found the most interesting — believing existence to be pointless.

Our narrator is also obsessed with a show called “Blue Lives,” about crooked, bloodthirsty cops who, just before they’re getting ready to bash a suspect’s head in with a shovel, stare into the camera and quote Kleist — or someone equally bizarre and seemingly out of character — in some strange, self-serious monologue. Our narrator, who is meant to be writing and, let’s remember, mingling, instead spends all his time watching this show.

100 pages or so in he goes out to a nearby restaurant with the center’s cleaning woman, who our narrator feels comfortable enough to confide in. The feeling is apparently mutual, because Monika, the cleaning woman, tells him the story of how she grew up in East Berlin. Her story, which makes up a sizable section of the book, is the best thing here, all about how she suffered under the terrible tactics employed by the cruel Stasi agents who struck terror into the hearts of those living in the former GDR.

Once Monika’s story is done, she’s gone — never to return. And that gets to the heart of my disappointment with “Red Pill” — the fact that so many characters are brought in, so many scenes played out, and yet they’re ultimately just abandoned never to be referenced again. It felt a bit disorienting, perhaps a bit too life-like, in the sense that things happen here without rhyme or reason. The fellow that takes our narrator out shooting? Not important. The shooting itself? Not important. The two refugees, a father and daughter, who our narrator just starts seeing everywhere? Don’t worry about it. The Deuter Center? Nah, doesn’t matter.

Our narrator never leaves the Berlin district of Wannsee where the center is located, until finally one of the fellows who is part of the regular table crew who he’s ultimately forced to dine with drags him out to an afterparty at the Berlinale, i.e. The Berlin International Film Festival.

While there, our narrator meets — you guessed it — the creator of “Blue Lives.” This is pretty much how things proceed from there:

Narrator: Yo, how come you’re quoting Kleist in your violent cop show?

Anton (“Blue Lives” guy): You got my reference to that rather obscure, 18th century fellow who offed himself along with his friend’s wife?

Narrator: Hell yeah I did.

Anton: Come with me and my sidekick to this kebab shop that’s supposed to be awesome.

Sidekick/friend 1: But we just had all this party food!

Anton: Whatever. Still hungry.

Narrator: Yeah, alright.

Enter kebab shop

Anton: Some friends are joining us.

Friends enter

Friend 1: Anton, what are we doing here?

Anton: Have a kebab.

Friend 2: Why would we want a kebab? We hate immigrants, remember.

Anton: He likes kebabs (points to the narrator).

Narrator eats a kebab

Anton: Immigrants suck. White people rule. Wait, let me say that using bigger words.

Narrator: What, you’re all a bunch of racists?

Friend 3: Yeah dude, why do you think we all sport these fascist haircuts?

Narrator: Wow, you guys suck. See ya.

Exit Narrator

But from then on, our narrator and Anton are involved in this strange, psychic struggle of sorts for … civilization? Truth? I’m not entirely sure, because around this time our narrator starts to act as though he’s really losing it because he follows those two aforementioned refugees home, gets himself kicked out of the Deuter Center, follows Anton to Paris, then to some remote Scottish island, and …

Then is taken, forcefully, back home to New York where his wife is having serious doubts about the mental stability of the guy she married. He’s having serious doubts himself, though he’s seeing a therapist and all, and even though he knows that this is all a simulation, and that nothing happening around him is real, that he’s in “The Matrix,” he’ll go ahead and make sure the hors d’oeuvres for his wife’s party are all arranged nicely on the plate so that the wife doesn’t freak out and take his daughter away with her. So he’ll just pour the wine for all the wife’s party guests who quietly inquire as to whether he’s “OK now” (i.e. no longer crazy) while they wait for the election results to come in so they can PAR-TAY!

Because this, the book’s climax, is set during a Hillary Clinton “victory” party on election night, 2016.

We all know how that turns out.

So Kunzru’s point is …

I’m not sure. Kunzru is a really good writer, and this is a pleasure to read, but the parts don’t feel like they add up to much. Something is missing.

It’s creepy at times how in-my-head Kunzru seems to get, and I envied his ability to expound on this or that thing that I, too, have found myself wondering about. But it does feel in the end as though Kunzru has compiled a journal of his political thoughts and basically combined them with what he did in 2016. He was in Berlin at an institute much like the Deuter Center (without all the drama and the obsession with “transparency”) and then he was probably at a Hillary Clinton “victory” party in New York where things didn’t go quite as everyone expected.

So he spun a book out of it.

It’s compelling, parts of it come off as very smart, but it just doesn’t form a coherent whole in the end. It’s a puzzle missing the central piece.

Maybe a great novel about the Alt-Right and the generally sad state of our union will come out at some point, but, I regret to inform you, this one falls short.

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