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An alt-right mind-bender for the QAnon era: How novelist Hari Kunzru went down the rabbit hole

Hari Kunzru's latest novel is "Red Pill."
(Clayton Cubitt)

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Hari Kunzru wants to be clear: He was not surveilled during his fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. There were no secret cameras in his room; his internet usage was not monitored; his movements were not tracked by disapproving staff. But these things do happen, more or less, to the unnamed narrator of Kunzru’s new novel “Red Pill” after he arrives at the Deuter Center, the academy’s fictional doppelganger.

“I’ve stolen their building and their location, but institutionally there’s no similarity at all,” Kunzru said. The classical structure is in Wannsee, a summer resort for affluent Berliners; in 1942, Nazi leaders agreed to the “final solution” at a nearby home, now a museum that catalogs those atrocities. “Wannsee is a very strange place,” Kunzru says. “It has that quality that a lot of Berlin does, layers of history being very present.”

Kunzru, the acclaimed British Asian writer turned New Yorker, uses that history as a launching pad for his sixth novel. “Red Pill” kicks off as a writer’s-residency comedy, with the narrator away from his young family and facing a blowhard colleague — which is then interrupted by the grim tale of the Stasi infiltrating the ’80s punk scene in East Germany (excerpted in the New Yorker in July). As if loosed from their moorings, the narrator and story spin out to Paris and a remote island, flying on the wings of his obsession-slash-paranoia about an alt-right conspiracy.

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“I did want to make a novel about a middle-aged man having a crisis, but that didn’t revolve around just wanting to sleep with somebody different,” Kunzru said. “So often that story channels into that kind of completely dull, ‘Is getting a new woman going to solve my feelings that I’m going to die?’ No!”

This isn’t the first time Kunzru has toyed with a familiar literary form to create something more ambitious, cutting to the heart of the zeitgeist. Three years ago, “White Tears” followed two white record collectors and became a complex anatomy of racial appropriation. “Gods Without Men” (2012), partly about the 2009 Great Recession, jumped across decades to spiral around a mystery in the Mojave desert.

“Red Pill” dives into a different rabbit hole. The unnamed narrator struggles to write a book about the notion of the self as understood by German lyric poetry. It could be a fascinating intellectual endeavor or a pretentious wank, and the narrator himself wobbles between the two. Procrastinating, he binges a TV show with a corrupt cop antihero (think “True Detective” meets “Breaking Bad” meets “The Sopranos”) and is startled to discover it’s seeded with quotes from Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre, a now-obscure counter-Enlightenment monarchist writer.

This appears unlikely, but he knows the source. At a fabulous party in Berlin, the narrator has a chance encounter with the show’s creator that sends him down an obsessive path. He finds more signs and signals in the show. Who is it talking to, what is it trying to say, and is he the only one who can stop it?

Sure, it sounds crazy, but just try to explain how armed alt-right militias started wearing Hawaiian shirts because of a joke based on a rhyme from an ’80s film. Contemporary alt-right culture is full of code-reading and private signaling.

“The OK symbol, that’s a perfect example,” Kunzru said. “Every time people on Twitter freak out, saying, ‘Such and such is making a white nationalist symbol,’ they can just say, ‘What do you mean? It’s just the OK symbol.’”

A book jacket for Hari Kunzru's "Red Pill."
(Knopf)

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If, like Kunzru, you’d spent the last 20 years tracking online conspiracy narratives, you wouldn’t be surprised about the emergence and partial mainstreaming of a theory as insane as QAnon. “I was reading American white nationalists’ boards. I think of it as a sort of early warning system, really,” Kunzru said. He’s been keeping an eye on the dark side of the web since his earliest days online.

Recruited to write for the just-launched British edition of Wired in 1995, Kunzru was attracted to the utopian potential of new technology. “I felt very lucky to be in my 20s in the ’90s,” he said. He ticks off the optimistic predictions of that era: the infinite possibilities of communicating online, the empowerment of disabled people, increased gender fluidity, end-runs around authoritarian censorship and the dissolution of the nation-state. But he knew, and wrote about, the downsides too. “I was writing a lot about the need to fight for the soul of this technology,” he said. “And virtually every single thing I thought was a bad idea, happened.”

Particularly insidious, in the book and in our current moment, is the way racist statements and wild theories are walked back with an insincere “just kidding.” “What we’ve seen in recent years was the rise of this quite smart, inverted-commas version of these far-right ideas,” Kunzru said. “It wasn’t just kind of foolish skinhead guys swapping old antisemitic memes.

“For years and years, far right culture was essentially very moribund. But now I think the Joe Rogans and Ben Shapiros and Jordan Petersons can present a way of being that’s pretty fun” — particularly for young men. “You get to mock the crying social justice warrior or the censorious mom figure, and you’re the ones with the jokes. I find things on far-right forums that are funny. They are terrifying at the same time, but they are witty.”

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Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, “Station Eleven,” envisioned a pandemic. “The Glass Hotel” plumbs financial doom.

Kunzru spoke to me from his apartment in New York, which he shares with his wife, novelist Katie Kitamura, and their two children. Kitamura’s last novel, “A Separation,” is about a man who goes missing on an island and the wife who tries to find him; in “Red Pill,” the writer-husband disappears on an island. Coincidence?

“We don’t show each other or even speak very much about what we’re doing until very late in the game. And so I discovered, well, I was handed a draft — here’s the caddish English husband who has disappeared,” Kunzru said, laughing. “I mean, it’s obviously, you know, a dimension of our marriage.”

In “Red Pill,” the wife is concerned for her husband’s well-being but has a hard time getting through to him. His obsessions blot out everything else. The television show’s creator, charming, clever and cruel, taunts the narrator: “I’m going to be living rent free in your head.”

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The book takes its title from the film “The Matrix,” in which taking the red pill awakens one to the truth. (Taking the blue pill allows one to stay in a pleasant simulation that almost everyone believes is real.) Originally, the red pill meant choosing reality and revolution. More recently, it has been co-opted by incels and the alt-right who say that they are awake and others are asleep.

So as a title, “Red Pill” works both ways. The narrator is on a seemingly quixotic quest to take down a branch of these new alt-righters. But perhaps he is himself awake; he has clear evidence of the 18th-century texts that show up in the television show. The ambiguity is a trick Kunzru pulls off throughout the novel: getting an idea and its negative correlative down on the page together.

It’s a tendency that runs deep — for Kunzru and for many people shuttling between normalcy and alarmism, red pill and blue. “I feel like my life runs on two tracks, you know, in order to function as a human, I need to believe that certain things are basically going to be OK,” Kunzru said. “And also, that’s not what I see or feel.”

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Kellogg is formerly books editor of The Times.


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