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Hari Kunzru’s ‘Red Pill’: The unbearable heaviness of being

Percy Bharucha | Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

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Hari Kunzru’s new novel captures a nameless protagonist’s struggles to remain sane in a world plagued by invisible terror

The first thing you notice about Hari Kunzru’s new book Red Pill is how small the cast is. You could count the characters of import on one hand and still have a finger or two to spare. There is the unnamed protagonist, a freelance writer of sorts, his wife Rei, their young daughter, and the subject of his obsession — the writer of the cop show Blue Lives — Gary Anton Bridgeman.

Red Pill / Hari Kunzru / Fiction /Simon & Schuster / ₹599

 

The reader then notices the extremely compact physical spaces the novel is set in. We shift from a tiny apartment in New York to the writer’s personal room at the Deuter Center in Wannsee outside Berlin, to which he relocates after submitting a farcical academic study.

The protagonist’s first real war of words with Gary takes place in a tiny kebab shop packed with men drinking, smoking, talking, and watching a football match. It’s so cramped that one of the characters complains about not being able to breathe, smothered by cigarette smoke and sweat. When he’s not boxed in, our protagonist takes solitary walks around the centre, and in Berlin. These trips outdoors are taken out of necessity rather than choice; an escape as he believes he’s under constant surveillance. They are spent talking to the phantom of writer Heinrich Kleist.

Red Pill is the stunning story of a writer’s struggle to keep his sanity. Plagued by an unseen terror and shaken by the state of the world, he wrestles with his inability to effect change and protect those close to him.

Kunzru steadily employs the suffocating narrowness of the physical spaces to pin the protagonist against a metaphorical wall. He chokes him until his main character is more pulp than man. The author also effectively uses the trope of confined architecture to portray the character’s isolation from his family, the city, and the readers. Kunzru denies him every expression of free will. Too late does the protagonist realise that the centre has rules that he cannot abide by. He cannot work in his room, but in the common spaces; he must attend meals with colleagues; his work is ridiculed, and finally, he cannot go home. He struggles under the pressure of work, and finds himself in a state of paranoia.

One is reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum. Kunzru’s protagonist seems to be tied up in a dark room with invisible bonds while a metaphysical razor-sharp pendulum slowly descends, threatening to cut him in half. The invisible nature of the terror that haunts him and his total isolation from the reader makes us label this a ‘state of madness’ and ‘emotional fragility’. He is repeatedly told he’s too soft, feels too much. Monika, the house help at the centre, recounts to him her persecution at the hands of the Stasi, of growing up in the GDR [German Democratic Republic or East Germany]. But she ends it with, “But you’re soft and selfish. The world will chew you up and spit you out.” Kunzru keeps the readers guessing as to when these horrors that so afflict the protagonist will truly reveal themselves and justify his frenzy.

The first-person point-of-view that Kunzru employs provides a startling ring-side view of an unravelling mind. The protagonist reads one of Kleist’s plays in which a deluded prince is ready to die as he thinks it will grant him martyrdom. In his own rumination, the protagonist fantasises about kneeling before an executioner. Death, to him, is the “orgasmic headshot” that would solve all problems at one go.

He binge watches Blue Lives, a violent cop show that he is certain subtly promotes nihilism, violence, and a fascist world view. After a particularly gruesome episode, he calls his wife and shares his fears regarding their apocalyptic future: “I just — I don’t want to spend my last years scavenging for canned goods in the ruins of some large city.” He laments his lack of power and money, his inability to protect and provide security for his family.

A chance meeting with the creator of the show, Gary, further fuels the nameless protagonist’s paranoia and obsession. Unable to respond to Gary’s goading about the “real” nature of humans, he falls further down the rabbit hole to frequent dark internet sites and portals where fascist trolls openly mock the lofty idealism of the liberals.

As if vindicating Gary, Kunzru accelerates the destruction of the protagonist’s mind by ironically showing him the consequences of being helpful. An attempt to help a refugee girl and her father spectacularly backfires. He begins to doubt if his beliefs are simply inconsequential notions formed by his inability to look past the sheen that covers reality. In a desperate call to his wife, he begs her to answer: “Why do you believe in human rights?”

There is something to be said about a novel that places at its heart a viewpoint that seems so outrageous in the beginning. And then Kunzru begins to weave in the seductive logic of Gary. It is of such potency that at times the reader cannot help but trot along. The reader must then — as the protagonist — confront their own truth that if they believe as Gary does, what would that make them? Kunzru weaves a cognitive and ethical conundrum of immense destructive potential.

In the end, the protagonist is reunited with his family after a stint at an asylum. Kunzru brings him back from the edge at a pivotal moment in history. Donald Trump has just beaten Hillary Clinton to be president of the US. In an incisive and ironic twist, Rei, his wife, asks the protagonist, “If it gets bad...where will we go?” Her words echo his thoughts, the ones he had struggled to suppress and reject.

Percy Bharucha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and illustrator

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Published on September 25, 2020
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