Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Red Pill is a novel about an author caught in an existential crisis of the modern alt-right, Trump age, and about how we treat the past and present. The unnamed protagonist leaves his wife and daughter in New York to take up a residency at the Deuter Centre in Berlin, where he plans to write his next book about lyric poetry. However, the Centre’s rules and atmosphere aren’t the retreat he expected, and he ends up flouting the rules, mostly to watch a violent cop show in his room. A chance encounter with the creator of the show at a Berlin party shows him that the world isn’t a liberal bubble, and the grip he had on his own sanity starts to slip as the other man’s ideas get into his head.

From the title, I’d expected something more focused on the alt-right, but actually it isn’t until quite far into the novel that alt-right internet culture comes in, and the earlier parts of the novel are more concerned with the protagonist’s creativity, a sense of history around both ideas and Berlin itself, and about rules and surveillance. There’s a lot about the Enlightenment and specific thinkers which I didn’t know much about, but having watched YouTube videos about debunking alt-right ideas at least gave me background on some of those points. Many of the ideas in the novel are more ideas than parts of the plot, but that is the point, and the protagonist is caught up trying and failing to connect ideas, and then later trapped in ideas. As I’d expected from having read White Tears, the atmosphere created in the novel is tense and strange, trying to get across the mental state of the often unreliable protagonist, and the tension is more in this atmosphere than the plot.

Red Pill is both what I expected and not, an unreliable trip down a rabbit hole of different ideas about the self, humanity, and the future, and a look at the world on the brink of Trump’s presidency. As someone interested in Romanticism, Berlin, and internet culture, the ideas were gripping and threw up questions about trying to find meaning, both in the novel and life.