Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Existential crisis…

🙂 🙂 😐

Red PillOur unnamed narrator, a writer of academic literary criticism, is going through a mid-life crisis. He is seemingly happily married and with a little child, but he’s finding it hard to write. So when he is offered a residency at the Deuter Institute in Berlin, he jumps at the chance to spend a few months working in luxurious surroundings, even though his wife is not thrilled at him leaving her to cope alone. But when he gets to the Institute, he discovers that they have odd and strict rules on how their visitors should work and associate, and he finds himself even less able to write than before. And so begins his existential crisis, tied in with the work he is, or isn’t, doing on the ‘lyric I’ as exemplified in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, a poet of the German Romantic school…

My reviews are entirely subjective and are rarely meant to be a quality judgement. The quality of this book may be wonderful if you happen to know anything, and care, about the philosophies underpinning German Romanticism. I don’t, and I don’t. As a result, I found some of this incomprehensible, and most of it tedious.

hari kunzru
Hari Kunzru

Kunzru uses his narrator’s philosophical musings and descent into madness to consider the current rise of the alt-right and to make comparisons to the totalitarian regimes of both left and right in the mid-twentieth century. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this would have been more interesting if the book had come out in the pre-Trump era, as a warning – not unlike Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, which met with harrumphs of disbelief from some quarters on its publication in 2013, particularly from Americans who then believed their democracy and fundamental freedoms were so strong they could not be overturned. The timing of this one, as the Trump era ends, or at least pauses, felt to me as if it had rather missed the bus. Most of us have been angsting for years over the question of whether America would pull back from the brink of fascism before it was too late, and so the questions raised in the book felt somewhat stale, as if looking ahead to a future that is already receding into the past (hopefully).

So, unfortunately, the combination of lots of self-indulgent lit-crit which didn’t interest me, combined with political questions which I feel have been done and done again in recent years, meant that I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as I have enjoyed Kunzru’s previous books. I hesitate to use the word pretentious, because perhaps it only feels pretentious to me because it’s so heavily immersed in a subject about which I am profoundly (and yet happily) ignorant. I’m sure people who are interested in German Romantic poetry and philosophy will have a different reaction. My opinion is, therefore, even more subjective than usual – the book didn’t work for me, but may work for you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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49 thoughts on “Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

  1. Thank you – this one’s a case of you’ve read it so i don’t have to. I’m also a Kunzru fan but was slightly wary of this one; novels by middle-aged writers writing about a mid-life crisis are to be approached with care in my experience!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, yes, I’m also wary of male writers when they reach the introspective point of life! I do love Kunzru though, and it was disappointing that he’d chosen a subject this time that I simply couldn’t get interested in. Maybe next time!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Definitely not a book for me, mainly because I don’t know anything about German Romanticism and I don’t plan to learn either. I imagine there are people who would love this book for exactly this reason though. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s exactly how I felt – just not a subject that interests me, but I’m sure it would be fascinating for people who are. He’s such a great writer too – I’ve loved a couple of his earlier books, and hopefully will love the next one! Can’t win ’em all… 😀

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    • To be honest, Cathy, I suspect you might love this. All the stuff about poetry criticism that didn’t work for me might be exactly your kind of thing. Hope so – he’s such a great writer!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Nope. I don’t think this one is for me, FictionFan. It isn’t so much the philosophy as it is that the characters don’t seem interesting to me. Perhaps I’m not being fair, in which case I plead guilty. But I do like a book to have characters that I find interesting to care about, even if I don’t find them particularly sympathetic, if that makes sense. There are some interesting points there about totalitarianism, but I wonder if there might not have been another way to address them…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Because I couldn’t get lost in it I may be being too harsh on it. The central character is well done – I’m just not that interested in middle-aged mid-life crises amongst the privileged in fiction. Too many (mostly male) authors write that book at some point in their career. There’s also an interesting section about a woman who had been caught up in one of the totalitarian regimes, but it all got a bit drowned for me by the philosophising on a subject that didn’t grab me…

      Liked by 3 people

    • Ha, no, it’s definitely a good book, for the right reader! Unfortunately that simply wasn’t me this time… hopefully next time he’ll be writing again about a subject that interests me more… 😀

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  4. Well… like you, I don’t and I don’t. So this one isn’t for me. (and a very generous review, considering it wasn’t really for you, either)

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a pity, because I do love his writing and when he’s covering a subject that interests me he’s one of my favourites. Sadly this one just wasn’t for me… hopefully the next one will be! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

      • As of today, WordPress will not let me access my old dashboard. You were the one who solved my earlier problems by letting me know I could go there to get the option of posting in either classic or block editor. With this new problem, I can only work from Block and since I’ve been using classic since early January, the edits I’ve made to my “books read” page don’t show up. I’ll have to go back and recreate the page in Block. Any suggestions on how to get back to Classic or am I doomed. (and are you doomed, as well?)

        Liked by 2 people

        • No, I’ve been thrown out of Classic too as of this week – gah! I asked them if there was a way back in but they gave me one of their pointless non-answer answers signed by a “Happiness Engineer” – oh, the irony!! Grrr! But I haven’t lost existing Classic posts or edits, as far as I can see.

          Try this. Go to Posts. (Or Pages, if it’s a Page.) Find your post/page and open it to edit – using the three dot ellipsis at the right-hand side. At the top of the screen on the left, there’s a little symbol that shows 3 sloping dash lines. This lists all the different types of blocks you have in the post/page. Click on the 3 lines – if there’s only one block called Classic, then everything should be OK. If there’s more than one, then what you need to do is cut and paste everything that’s in a non-Classic block into one Classic block. Does that make sense? If not, let me know what you see when you click on the 3 sloping lines…

          Liked by 2 people

          • The three sloping dashes bring up a long list of Paragraph symbols. What I did manage to do was go to my page for Books for 2021 (as a viewer, not editor) and copy all the entries. Then I went into the blasted Block editor and created a new page, pasting the info. It worked!! (So I deleted the old page) However, when I then added the book I finished last night, I couldn’t for the life of me get it formatted correctly. It highly offends my sense of balance to have the new book slightly out of line with the rest! First world problems.

            If I’d had to recreate that page from scratch (I’ve read a lot this year so far!), I’d have quit. Instead, I guess I’ll just going to have to get use to the Block editor. You, too!

            Liked by 2 people

            • Glad you got it sorted, and I honestly didn’t even notice it was out of alignment till you said. But I know what you mean – that kind of thing drives me nuts too. I fully intend to just use the Classic block for every post and I’ve always done a lot of copying and pasting rather than setting up each post from start. So far it’s working OK, although it’s annoying having to work out how to do things that used to be second nature in the old system. Grrr! Why can’t they stop messing with things? I haven’t found a single advantage with the new system.

              Liked by 2 people

        • I just looked at your 2021 page, and it looks OK – the last book showing is no. 34 – How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House which I’m sure wasn’t there last time I looked, which would have been the last time you posted a jigsaw.

          Liked by 2 people

        • Or am I misunderstanding your comment? Hmm. If you mean how can you use Classic in the new system – Click on Add New Post. At the top left, there’s a box with a plus sign in it. Click on it. You’ll get a list of available block types – ignore them! In the search box at the top, type Classic. It will then show up a Classic icon. Click on it and you will now get the old Classic toolbar at the top of the page and just use it as you previously would have. There are some annoying difference, like handling media, so if you get stuck with a particular thing, let me know – I’m still learning but I might be able to help.

          But all posts and pages you previously did with the old Classic should have automatically converted to being a Classic block… I think.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yes, the Book page is okay now, with the exception of the formatting. I’ll have to live with that. (it looks correct on the edit page, but is a space to the left in published form)

            I’ll try your suggestion for continuing in Classic, but I wonder if I shouldn’t just try to adapt to the block editor since it’s what they seem determined to make us use. The times I tried it before, I struggled a little with media and with getting quotations the way I wanted them. But if you’ve had some media problems with your continuation of classic, sounds like I’d have to adapt a bit with either editor.

            I could be wrong, but it seems like every time I made an edit (in classic), it would pop up and ask me if I wanted to continue in Classic. Maybe it was asking me if I wanted to save those edits in Block instead. No matter, I got that part resolved and will edit my book page in Block from now on. I really appreciate your help with all this.

            As for that last book I read, I don’t particularly recommend it. In a word: misery.

            Liked by 2 people

            • If you’re really bothered about the alignment thing, then pressing Control-Shift-Alt-M will take you to the html code and you should be able to see what’s different and change your last book to the same as the others. But you either have to do that every time you added a new one, or copy the last one each time and then amend it, if you see what I mean. The same Control-Shift-Alt-M will tkae you back to the visual screen.

              I’ve played with the other blocks but I can’t make them do what I want them to do, which is look like all my other posts. I’ll keep playing for a while, but really I find just using the Classic block easier and more controllable.

              Haha, that’s a pity because it’s an intriguing title… 😀

              Liked by 2 people

            • If I can’t learn to live with the alignment, I’ll try the copy/paste business.

              The title was what appealed to me the most. It was a “Good Morning America” book club pick that was listed in the Sunday insert of my paper. It was very depressing. ☹️

              Liked by 2 people

  5. Well, I love your disclaimer, and I thank you, again, for taking one for Team Reader. I agree with A Life in Books in that mid-life writers writing about mid-life crises should be approached with caution. Especially male writers who leave their spouses with small children to look after and then complain about how hard it is for them to write now that they’ve gotten what they wanted (and still found it lacking). Moving on….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, and especially mid-life writers writing about mid-life writers having mid-life crises! I’m afraid I find it hard not to see the author in the character, which is probably totally unfair – especially when the character kinda goes mad… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that was my problem – I’d never heard of the poets much less read any of the poetry and I fear he didn’t inspire me to fill that gap! His last book, White Tears, was the opposite – it was about early blues musicians and sent me off to spend many happy hours on youtube…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I saw a comment years ago to the effect that “the advice to write what you know is why there are so many tedious novels about middle-aged literature professors contemplating having an affair” and it made me laugh so much – certainly a whole subgenre of novels and not one I’m particularly interested in. While it doesn’t sound like this exactly falls into that category, from your summary it sounds much too close to it for me to consider picking up!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hahaha, great quote! Yes. so many heavyweight writers have a mid-life crisis book somewhere in their catalogue – it rarely endears either the character or the author to me! But Kunzru is a great writer and the book is well done – just unfortunate that the subject matter he chose this time didn’t interest me. I’ll still be waiting impatiently for the next one… 😀

      Like

  7. It sounds pretentious to me too. I know why you hesitate to use that word, because quite honestly, I have no doubt people think I’m pretentious, so I don’t like using the word either but…sometimes it just fits 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have a habit of calling books pretentious and sometimes they undoubtedly are! But sometimes I wonder, like with this one, if it’s just that they’re talking about something I’m not interested in. Pretentiousness is in the eye of the beholder! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I read Red Pill several weeks ago and aspects of it resonate with me still. I do understand your response because at times in the first part of the novel I felt I was trusting the author as I kept going along for the ride without being really immersed in the story. However, for me, the ending, which I found chilling, then redemptive, made me feel this trust was fulfilled. At this point I did perceive an underlying intelligence as a thread throughout the story – a cool intelligence which I was definitely grasping at sometimes, but it did resolve into something human and connected.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it – I did feel there was probably a good book in there and that it simply wasn’t working for me because of my lack of interest in the poetry lit-crit side of it. But he is a great writer and definitely manages to unsettle the reader – I thought the section about the woman in the totalitarian regime was very good, and the alt-right stuff too would have been thought-provoking if I’d read it a few years ago – possibly because I’ve been so steeped in watching the whole Trump thing unfold over the last several years it just felt a bit stale to me now. Plus although I’m only getting around to reviewing it now, I actually read it in the middle of my slump last year, so I’m quite sure that didn’t help…

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I doubt this one is for me either, but I have to admit I am strangely mesmerised by the cover. 🙂 Also, I just made it through The End of the Affair about a middle-aged writer going through an existential crisis and that wasn’t a success either. I had pretty much the same response as you had to this one: Yeah, I can see why some people love it, but it was the wrong choice of topics for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a great cover, isn’t it? I read The End of the Affair just a year or two ago and was seriously underwhelmed – I felt her exalted sainthood status at the end took away any credibility from the story, plus monotone misery never works for me! A pity, because I love a lot of Greene. Brighton Rock is brilliant, and I loved The Heart of the Matter. However, I was much younger when I read it so I’m kinda frightened to revisit it in case my cynical older self starts harrumphing at it too… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        • THotM is another of the Catholic books so there’s a lot of religious philosophising in it too, but the main character, Scobie, is a wonderful creation – or at least seemed so back in the day! I’ve tentatively got it down for a re-read…

          Liked by 1 person

          • I am not against religious philosophising at all, that is one of the things I enjoyed in Transcendent Kingdom. But I must admit, I didn’t like the way it was handled in The End of the Affair, the religious part was my least favourite part of the book. So if there are many similarities in THotM, maybe it isn’t for me.

            Liked by 1 person

            • No, no, don’t let me put you off! I thought the religious philosophising in THotM was a million miles better than the superficial mysticism of TEotA! My only hesitation is because I was so young – twenty-ish – when I read it, and so I don’t think I was as critical a reader back then. But for decades – right up till I read The End of the Affair, in fact – I declared it as my favourite non-Dickens novel of all time. So please don’t let me put you off! There’s a religious element to Brighton Rock too, and I thought that was handled really well.

              Like

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