What if the Reasonable Reaction to the World is Endless Horrified Screaming?
Hari Kunzru’s novel “Red Pill” explores the potential breakdown of American democracy
It’s early 2016 and the unnamed narrator of Hari Kunzru’s latest novel, Red Pill, feels a dread of something coming that he can’t quite explain or convince others to take seriously. Perhaps his fear is tied to the American election, but it is also much bigger than that.
Without reading the fine print, he accepts a three month residency at the Deuter Center in Wannsee, near Berlin—a town with grim resonances of Nazi history. There, he encounters an eerie emphasis on transparency, public workspaces, and surveillance. He befriends a cleaning woman who offers a detailed account of how she was set up by the Stasi and wonders if his own family might someday face the fate of the Syrian refugees wandering the streets. Retreating to his room, the narrator grows obsessed with streaming an exceptionally brutal American police drama called Blue Lives. When he encounters the showrunner at a party, he becomes convinced this man has enormous power to influence the culture with his alt-right worldview, kicking off a cat-and-mouse game between the two that leads them across Paris and Scotland. Is he losing his mind or can he do something to stop the ideologies of the far right from going mainstream?
In the first of my two-part interview with Kunzru, we talked about whether 2020 fulfills his narrator’s disastrous fears, how white supremacist ideologies are no longer necessarily about race, and dangerous failures of political imagination.
Preety Sidhu: Throughout this book, which is set entirely in 2016, your narrator dreads some coming disaster, a surprise Black Swan event that will have a major effect on the world, that is tied to but much bigger than the results of the American election that year. Did you complete the manuscript before the pandemic hit? Can you speak more to the relationship between what your narrator is dreading and the events we are experiencing in 2020?
Hari Kunzru: Yes, it was complete before the pandemic hit. It’s strange. When the pandemic started and I just started to realize that this book was going to arrive in the middle of this situation, I began to wonder whether it would feel relevant. But the pandemic aside, the larger feelings of anxiety, and the idea that certain kinds of social and political givens are not so certain as they may have felt a few years ago, I think that’s only intensified. As you say, it is bigger than the election. This isn’t a Trump Apocalypse book. It’s about much larger things to do with how we feel about things like human dignity and how we feel about value, more generally. You know, even the narrator’s anxiety is very—his problem is that he can’t really give it a name. That’s the first problem, is that he hasn’t got to, oh well, this is wrong with my life and so I can go about solving it. He has a kind of general fear of disaster.
At certain points I have found myself wondering how far things will slide and how quickly they will slide. I was thinking a lot when I was writing, which was 2015–2016, the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. I was in Berlin and we talked about the refugee situation there. Realizing that there are other people who had their lives and their houses and their children and their hopes for the future, and found themselves absolutely destitute, in rubber boats. There’s a complacency that people in rich safe places have had. But the cold breath of disaster is beginning to play on the backs of the necks of a lot of people in America or in Western Europe, because we’re not sure that things will stay how they used to. You used the phrase Black Swan event, and that’s a good way of thinking about it.
PS: Your narrator is biracial, half Indian and half English. Anton, who is after all a white supremacist, does not come for him because he’s not white, but rather attacks the foundation of his liberal beliefs, his assumption that human beings deserve human rights, that cosmopolitanism is good, and so on. To what extent is Anton’s brand of white supremacy more focused on ideology rather than personal identity?
HK: That’s a very interesting question. There are plenty of straight-out racists in the mix, that’s very true. But it would be a very easy story to tell if our poor Brown narrator—if the nasty white supremacists are nasty to him for the thing he can’t change, the color of his skin. But especially on the intellectual end of this constellation of broadly white supremacist thinking that’s there on the right—which has really had a renaissance in the last few years, they have become much more sophisticated and powerful—for the more sophisticated of them, it isn’t based on race. They’ve got plenty of atavistic feelings about not wanting to be around Black and Brown people, but they do have this ideological hatred of cosmopolitanism and globalism, which some of them see as a tool of an elite, perhaps even a Jewish, cabal to impose an economic and social system which benefits them at the expense of a white indigenous population of wherever we’re talking about.
Also there’s an interest in “intelligence,” which is usually coded racially and is a way of justifying various measures intended to suppress Black people specifically. But the ones who are interested in intelligence are forced to admit things like that Ashkenazi Jews and South and East Asians score very well on the tests that they believe show your intrinsic worth. So there’s an end of this far right culture which is not very racially obsessed. It’s a mistake of mainstream liberals to assume that if you show that race is a fiction—here’s my book demonstrating that biological race is not a real thing—that’s going to get to the heart of it. It is much more complex and insidious than that.
I don’t think Anton is a—he’s clearly Islamophobic. The milieu they’re in, in Germany at that moment, the anxiety is all around new Muslim immigrants and there’s all this stuff about the gates of Vienna and the Ottomans coming to the very door of Europe and being pushed back. Is this going to happen again in this insidious way, through migration? You’re probably familiar with the idea of “the Great Replacement,” that’s French theory that comes from this old racist git called Renaud Camus, the idea that this migration is going to replace indigenous French people with an alien Brown and Black race. But yeah, it’s not primarily race-based. I think that’s quite hard for a lot of people to grasp. It’s often questions around whether they think democracy is a useful thing. In the book I get very interested in what they believe about democracy and what democracy actually represents. Is democracy the mass rule of the stupid people over the few intelligent people? That would be very much the frame that these rightists have.
PS: As I was reading the kebab scene, I couldn’t remember whether I had read the narrator’s racial identity earlier in the book. I do feel that Anton might have treated a white liberal this way.
HK: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting that Anton doesn’t immediately say, well you look like these Turkish people that we’re in the restaurant with, so therefore you must be the same. To me, it’s a point of principle, as a South Asian or as anybody, you should be able to write characters who have particular racial identities without a book having to be about those racial identities. I wanted this character to be a visibly brown-skinned man going through this, but his range of cultural interests are very European. He rarely mentions anybody who’s not from this Western canon that he’s interested in. The only point where it becomes significant, there’s a little tiny scene at a bus stop where he sees the refugee dad and the little girl. He and the dad make eye contact in—I call it something like the Freemasonry of Brown men who meet in white spaces. So there is that kind of moment which I’m sure you know very well, you scan the room and you’re like catching their eye. Whether you actually have anything else in common, you notice.
The director vaguely asks him what he thinks he can bring to the study of German poetry, but I wanted that to be not the axis around which the book turns. Because the worlds I live in, I could have an evening talking about Goethe or whatever and my South Asian identity would not come up. I’m trying to open up a space for everybody to not have to constantly bang on about identity and diversity. When I was starting out as a writer in the 90s in Britain, we had this new wave of visibility of the second generation, children of immigrants, and we were doing all these cultural things. But every time I spoke to anybody, it would be like, can you talk about identity? How does your work deal with identity? And I’d eventually be like, please. Yeah.
My experience of being in Germany in the first half of 2016, when there were all these new immigrants around, was that very frequently I was mistaken for a refugee. Germans would treat me in various ways, ranging from a very exaggerated hospitality to demonstrate that they were friendly and welcoming to a couple of times when people wouldn’t serve me in shops. That’s another flickering of identity which I gave to this character. He’s in the same position I was in, a prestigious fellowship at an institution, and not somebody who’s living in a communal accommodation and trying to make his way in this new country. It’s another dimension of that question.
PS: While we see several ordinary 2016 Democratic voters towards the end of the book, we never encounter ordinary Republican voters. Can you speak to your decision to make the danger internal to the narrator and his opposition embodied in only one other man, rather than millions of voters?
HK: At one point he talks about there being two tracks to his life. There’s the normie track which has to do with electoral politics and his wife fundraising for Clinton. And he has the second track, which he considers this almost unsayable secret life, where he’s looking at the Internet and the way he sees the world going and imagining some terror coming down towards him. At the very end, he has a sense of these two tracks touching and somehow through him the secret apocalyptic worldview has affected the real.
So my concern wasn’t really with the logic by which American voters would vote Republican or Democrat. It’s supposed to be a critique of a certain complacent elite liberal mindset, which has been very largely responsible for getting us to the mess that we find ourselves in, which is imagining that the horizons of the world go no farther than your very bland imagination of it.
The process which gave us Hillary Clinton as a candidate seemed almost willfully blind to what was actually going on. And again, the ticket we have this time is not a ticket that really addresses any deep issues. Maybe tactically it’s enough to get the current occupant out of the White House. I’m shocked by the lack of political imagination that some people have. I was very scared in 2015. The book is an outgrowing of that, a big bucket for me to put all that anxiety and fear in. And yet, we’ve had mainstream commentators saying well he’ll govern as the Republican. No, don’t be silly. The pandemic came along, it was alarmist to mention 200,000 people will die in it. Now we’ve seen the space of possibility open up and open up and open up.
I hope that many people now understand that there is no magic guarantee that American political and cultural life will carry on as it has done. America’s as vulnerable as anywhere else to a hostile takeover by authoritarianism. We are at a turning point. If Trump wins this election, I straightforwardly believe it will be the end of America as a democratic state. I think that’s still unthinkable for a lot of people, but it’s been where I am mentally for five years now. And I don’t like being proved right, there’s no fun in that at all.
PS: The idea that this narrator gets fixated on, that maybe he can track down and talk sense into this one man who seems to have influence over what’s happening—why crystallize it into this one man that he can play this cat-and-mouse game with?
HK: It’s absurd, he’s chosen a TV showrunner as the source of all ills. Anton has a cultural power that the narrator says he’s not jealous of, but he’s clearly jealous of. Anton is smart and may have some sort of agenda, but he’s not the cause of any of this. It’s that parable of the drunk man looking for his house keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light’s best. We go for a detailed plot-like solution for these very complex … it’s very hard to put your finger on what the thing you would change is, that would make it all better.
Look at QAnon. I think QAnon is the mirror version of the things happening to the protagonist in this book. The QAnon people have invented a fairy story about a small number of very evil people who are in charge and a hero who’s going to overthrow them and restore justice and order to the world. It’s the most ancient narrative structure imaginable and yet it’s playing out in these very modern ways through social media and so on. It’s comforting to imagine that things have plots, and the real horror is that they don’t, that life is formless and life has a complexity that’s ungraspable and that we’re the playthings of fate.
PS: I love this quote, from the narrator’s stint at a New York City mental health facility: “My doctors were fundamentally servants of the status quo. Their work was predicated on the assumption that the world is bearable, and anyone who finds it otherwise should be coaxed or medicated into acceptance. But what if it isn’t? What if the reasonable reaction is endless horrified screaming?” What were you hoping to convey or explore about the narrator’s mental health, whether a justified response to the world or otherwise?
HK: I think he’s correct to say that the reasonable response to the world is endless horrified screaming because the world is unbearable. The world contains every imaginable horror and it’s amazing that we can carry on in the midst of that. But we do and we have to, so some sort of accommodation with that is necessary.
The slightly different stuff about his … I think the technical terms are depersonalization and derealization, which are very common experiences for people having mental breaks. The idea of the thinness of reality has always interested me, the moment where you look around and you realize that the world is a stage set in some sense. It’s simultaneously literally not true, but in some other ways is true. Many aspects of our world are constructed and could be different.
I think the sense of the thinness of reality is where we are now, because we’re asking ourselves what other political arrangements could come out of this situation? Could we end up in an authoritarian state? Who has to be taken away to the camps for it to start feeling real to ordinary people? The lesson from history is that you can go all the way through without it feeling real. You can be a good German and have the concentration camp outside your town, and you can still not feel that’s something connected to you. So that sense of thinness is a real political experience that we’re having at the moment. Having a narrator who’s experiencing that in a literal mental health way, I feel he’s the sane one and the Hillary people are not.
PS: Anton’s real name is Gary Bridgeman, and Bridgeman is a name you’ve used a few times for characters in previous books. Is there a story behind this?
HK: You’re the first person to ever actually ask me that. Yeah, there’s a Bridgeman in each book. They’re always ambiguous characters, they are “bridge men,” the kind of people that connect things that otherwise wouldn’t be connected. In The Impressionists that’s the guy who’s passing. There is always something shady about a Bridgeman, when you meet one in my head.
PS: How far back does that go for you?
HK: It was the obvious name for the character in The Impressionists, and then it was just a private joke to myself. Waiting for people to say hang on, you use this name frequently. It’s a constellation or a family resemblance rather than it meaning one thing.