Alex's Reviews > Red Pill

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru
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Though it's become increasingly common in recent years, encountering references to Gundam and 4chan and other weird internet subcultures in a literary novel still reminds me of how amusing it was to learn, via the heavy-handed mentions peppered throughout Bleeding Edge, that in fact Thomas Pynchon probably was the Metal Gear Solid fan we imagined him to be and was not above referencing it in his own hallowed work, that maybe the low culture of videogames had credibly succeeded Gravity's Rainbow or whatever after all. Calling your book Red Pill definitely gives away the game there, but I trust Hari Kunzru implicitly after his last book, White Tears, and this one came with an exciting pitch about an academic getting lost on a writer's retreat in Germany and turning against himself, so I was more optimistic about seeing my own cultural milieu described back to me than I might've been otherwise.

Sadly, I found the protagonist much more compelling during the first half of the book, when he's painted as a relatively average middle-aged schmuck, than during the latter, when he starts to really lose his marbles. To an extent this is a "me" problem; I can't get enough of my schmucks, and like all classics of the genre, Red Tears doesn't fail to add one additional hyperspecific quality to the schmuck canon. Funnily enough it's something that was also foregrounded in Colin Jost's recent memoir, of all places, and which I recognized from my own life but didn't make the connection until now: the American who goes to Europe with some goal in mind, nominally in someone else's care, and then routinely fails to leave the house at regular intervals, or in an acceptably normal way when he does. It's quality stuff, but it's basically set-dressing where the novel is concerned, and when the stakes are subsequently heightened I couldn't quite stay with it. It's possible that there were echoes of the German canon I failed to recognize (I know my Russian and English literature, though not much Mann), but -- avoiding spoilers -- I've been more moved by plenty of other descents into insanity. It's difficult to believe that Kunzru really wanted to paint his protagonist, or the strata of society he represents, as tragically weak-willed rather than sort of pitifully Knausgaardian; Houellebecq this is not, though at worst it's sort of hard to say why not.

(Also, a couple of unflattering comparisons: the short story midway through is almost too reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen's last book for all that seems to subsequently hang off of it in this one, and the allusions to a mega-successful TV show that is obviously modelled on Game of Thrones are taken almost directly from Jonathan Safran Foer's 2016 novel; both of these were pretty bad even by the standards of lauded male mediocrity and being reminded of them is unwelcome.)

In that regard, I didn't like this nearly as much as White Tears, which was the first and so far only other of his novels I've read, and was so well-observed, so harsh and so gradually threatening that I remember having had to look up immediately upon finishing it how long he'd lived in America to have cast it so well. While structurally similar, Red Pill deliberately makes its own ending seem inevitable, its struggle spent, a little sad and a little hopeful for it but nevertheless aware that it's capturing a moment which has passed, and recently. White Tears was no less timely, but not nearly so on the nose.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 13, 2020 – Shelved

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