ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES'S 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2020
ONE OF NPR's BEST BOOKS OF 2020
ONE OF THE A.V. CLUB'S 15 FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2020
From the widely acclaimed author of White Tears, a bold new novel about searching for order in a world that frames madness as truth.
After receiving a prestigious writing fellowship in Germany, the narrator of Red Pill arrives in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee and struggles to accomplish anything at all. Instead of working on the book he has proposed to write, he takes long walks and binge-watches Blue Lives--a violent cop show that becomes weirdly compelling in its bleak, Darwinian view of life--and soon begins to wonder if his writing has any value at all.
Wannsee is a place full of ghosts: Across the lake, the narrator can see the villa where the Nazis planned the Final Solution, and in his walks he passes the grave of the Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist, who killed himself after deciding that "no happiness was possible here on earth." When some friends drag him to a party where he meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, the narrator begins to believe that the two of them are involved in a cosmic battle, and that Anton is "red-pilling" his viewers--turning them toward an ugly, alt-rightish worldview--ultimately forcing the narrator to wonder if he is losing his mind.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
British novelist Hari Kunzru’s cerebral novel examining the disturbing social-media-fueled rise of the alt-right movement around the world feels intensely relevant to our time. The story’s unnamed narrator moves all the way from Brooklyn to Berlin for a writing fellowship, but once there, he doesn’t make much progress on his book. Instead, he gets drawn into the area’s dark history, becoming obsessed with a violent TV cop drama that he suspects is thinly veiled fascist propaganda. By the time he has a real-life encounter with the cop show’s actual creator, he’s convinced he’s at the center of a right-wing conspiracy—and he might be right. The writer’s harrowing journey kept reminding us of that famous saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Kunzru's powerful latest (after White Tears) follows an unnamed Brooklyn writer who lands in Berlin for a fellowship at the Deuter Center in 2016. What's supposed to be a writing retreat and a way to get past the creative block he was experiencing amid a midlife crisis, however, soon turns into an escalating disaster. The Center's strict policy that residents share workspace clashes with the writer's need for isolation, driving him to binge-watch Blue Lives, a cop show. Trouble begins when the narrator grows fascinated with the show's persuasive nihilistic worldview, thus triggering his anxiety that his own work is futile and irrelevant. The novel takes a bizarre turn when the paranoid narrator has a chance encounter with the Blue Lives creator, Anton, a smug, alt-right ideologue. Obsessed with confronting Anton about Blue Lives's pernicious message during the increasingly divisive U.S. presidential race, the narrator plows headlong down a self-destructive path. A subplot narrated by a cleaning woman who lives with memories of being controlled by the Stasi doesn't quite tie together with the rest of the goings-on, but Kunzru does an excellent job of layering the atmosphere with fear and disquietude at every turning point. This nightmarish allegory leaves the reader with much to chew on about literature's role in the battleground of ideas.