BACK IN MAY, Elon Musk caused a stir when he told his 34,000,000 Twitter followers to “[t]ake the red pill.” Ivanka Trump responded, “Taken!” The term red pill is a reference to a pivotal moment in the film The Matrix, whose co-creator Lilly Wachowski responded to Musk’s and Ivanka’s tweets with, “Fuck both of you.”

Many wondered if Musk was a Trump supporter, and when asked for an explanation, he shared the Urban Dictionary’s definition of red pill: “‘Red pill’ has become a popular phrase among cyberculture and signifies a free-thinking attitude, and a waking up from a ‘normal’ life of sloth and ignorance. Red pills prefer the truth, no matter how gritty and painful it may be.”

But as it’s currently most commonly used, taking the red pill generally means rejecting leftist social ideals and accepting a far-right worldview. As a 2017 article in New York magazine describes,

To men’s-rights activists, being red-pilled means throwing off the yoke of popular feminism and recognizing that men, not women, are the oppressed group. To the alt-right, it means revealing the lies behind multiculturalism and globalism, and realizing the truth of isolationist nationalism. To conspiracy theorists, it may mean accepting the influence of the New World Order on society. To white supremacists, it means acknowledging that Jewish elites control the culture and are accelerating the destruction of the white race.

It’s ironic that while the red pill originally meant to open one’s eyes to the truth, the term is now used to indicate an acceptance of startling delusions and conspiracy theories. For example, about a month into the pandemic, a friend asked me if I wanted to take the red pill, and then explained how COVID-19 was not a disease caused by a virus but was actually symptoms of the cytokine storm caused by the rollout of 5G towers.

So, when I saw that Hari Kunzru’s new novel was titled Red Pill, I assumed it would be about all this alt-right and conspiracy phenomena. Especially because Kunzru, the author of six novels, started spending time on 4chan in 2006, about 10 years before most people had heard of it, and has kept track of internet troll culture since the ’90s. In a recent essay for The New York Review of Books, “For the Lulz,” he explains how 4chan posts and memes are motivated by their “lulz” value — the ability to promote laughs by being shocking and provocative. Examples are the memes “pedobear,” a cute cartoon bear implying pedophilia, and Pepe the Frog, an anthropomorphic cartoon frog who sometimes appears in Nazi garb and makes jokes about gas ovens. Kunzru notes that in 2014, the rise of the “incel” (involuntary celibate) subculture turned parts of 4chan bitter and violent. That’s when misogynist sentiments transcended the online forums and manifested in reality — notably when a 22-year-old incel drove around the UC Santa Barbara campus and shot at random women, killing six people and injuring 14 others.

This tragedy and the Gamergate controversy led to censorship on 4chan, which motivated alt-right trolls to join 8chan, which became, along with Reddit, how most far-right content infected the mainstream media. As Kunzru writes, Trump’s descent down the golden escalator “was the catalyst for the underemployed proto-fascist Gamergate army to form itself into an effective political force.” And “[l]ike a bolus of food passing through some awful human centipede,” their hogwash conspiracy theories created for lulz were repeated on these sites, and then picked up by Breitbart and Fox News, thereby informing policy of the Trump administration.

Aware of Kunzru’s fascination with this disturbing world, I figured Red Pill would be an immersion in tawdry American alt-right internet subcultures. But it’s not. It is, essentially, the story of a man’s breakdown. And it begins with a question.

¤

The unnamed narrator of Red Pill is a relatively successful middle-aged British Indian writer who lives in Manhattan with his beautiful wife, a lawyer for a nonprofit that worked on immigration and civil liberties, and their three-year-old daughter. He has nothing to complain about, but he feels “there was something profoundly but subtly wrong, some urgent question” he had to answer. He can’t formulate what that question is, but admits, “It concerned the foundations for things, beliefs I had spent much of my life writing and thinking about, the various claims I made for myself in the world.” And so he embarks on a three-month residency at the Deuter Center for Social and Cultural Research, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, ostensibly to write a book about the construction of the self in lyric poetry, which he feels is the key to his unarticulated question.

Yet he can’t write. The Deuter Center has a mission of transparency, and he’s told to work in a common room, with screens visible to all and computer activity tracked. It’s impossible for him. He spends much of his time in his room binge-watching the show Blue Lives, an extremely violent police drama, and going for dreary walks. For over a hundred pages, the going is slow, though pleasantly so. The novel is seeded with hints bits of meta, and it’s the reader’s job to put the clues together.

First, it’s January 2016; over the previous year, Germany had taken in over a million refugees, and the right-wing backlash was gaining intensity. Then there’s Wannsee itself, which was the site of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, where high-ranking Nazi officials decided on the Final Solution to the Jewish question — complete extermination. That is, the novel is set in the heart of fascist nationalism, or at least where its most extreme manifestation was conceived. Wannsee is also where the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who lived from 1777 to 1811, committed suicide. Kunzru’s narrator initially expresses distaste for Kleist’s “hysteric” work. But after he repeatedly walks past Kleist’s grave, he buys Kleist’s collected stories, unable to ignore chance encounters.

Kunzru takes us through a few of Kleist’s stories, but one he doesn’t mention is “On the Marionette Theater,” a dialogue between two friends watching a fairground puppet play, which Kleist wrote in 1810, a year before he shot himself. One of the friends, a dancer, exalts and envies the graceful movements of the puppets, arguing, “Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.” The British philosopher John Gray riffs on Kleist’s idea in his book The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom (2015). Using the story as a means of introducing his philosophy of Post-Humanism and his take on Gnosticism, Gray writes, “What von Kleist means is that the puppets are not weighed down by the burden of choice. Paradoxically, the puppets do not have to choose; they do not have the problem we have of freedom of choice — they have the freedom not to choose.” That is, unlike humans, puppets are truly free.

And yet humans long for this freedom from the responsibility of choice. We attach to belief systems and put faith in political leaders, who free us from having to think for ourselves. Kleist himself had his belief system rocked at age 23, when he read Kant and experienced a crisis of depression. Kunzru’s narrator sympathizes. “Who wouldn’t want to have an answer for everything?” he asks. But systems, he continues, “however metaphysical or abstract, are never innocent. They do the dirty work of knowledge, clearing the ground for action, for taking control.”

These hints pile up. The main character of Blue Lives is a sadistic cop named Carson, and while he brutally tortures a man he looks into the camera and says, “The whole earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but a vast altar on which all living things must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without pause, until the consummation of things.” After “falling down various rabbit holes,” Kunzru’s narrator connects this quote to the French writer Joseph-Marie Comte de Maistre, who lived from 1753 to 1821. Being “a royalist zealot who hated Jacobins, scientists, Protestants, journalists, democrats, Jews, Freemasons, secularists and various other categories of people that he thought of as comprising ‘the sect,’ a Satanic conspiracy to undermine the divinely ordained power of Pope and King,” Maistre is clearly a proto-fascist figure. Kunzru is reminding us that the rising alt-right fascism we’re currently seeing has a long intellectual history.

There are little clues too — a sleepy-eyed cartoon frog on a technician’s tee shirt, the mention of the word incel, guns. In conceptual opposition, Kunzru makes the narrator’s wife a human rights lawyer, the epitome of Enlightenment values, and drops a reference to the blue flower, the symbol of hope and beauty during German Romanticism. And so, through hints and symbols, he implicitly sets up a framework of Enlightenment values versus anti-Enlightenment values, the conflicting ideologies currently dividing Western culture. Because that’s what the political divide is fundamentally about. On one side are people who believe in reason and human rights, and on the other are people who believe in nothing. We can call them nihilists, or opportunists, though they might call themselves realists. But what they call realism, Kunzru notes, “is just the cynical operation of power.”

¤

About halfway in, the novel takes a hard turn. Having become paranoid due to the Deuter Center’s creepy surveillance of his productivity, the narrator tries to befriend the maid Monika, who tells him a story of her punk-culture youth in the German Democratic Republic, and how she was coerced to become an informer for the Stasi.

Monika’s 33-page story was previously published in The New Yorker, as “A Transparent Woman,” and it’s a peculiar example of why excerpting a section from a novel is so annoying. (Though I admit I often did this back when I edited a literary magazine.) If you’ve previously read the excerpt, it feels oddly déjà vu when you come across that section in the novel, and it seems silly to reread it. And usually an excerpt doesn’t stand alone, as it was never intended to, and is incohesive. But Monika’s story is the opposite: it’s cohesive, but incongruous with the narrative in Red Pill, as if it was a separate short story Kunzru wrote and then included in the novel, as some songwriters use a verse from a discarded song as the bridge in another. The tone and pace are completely different from everything before, and it’s barely mentioned in what comes after. I wondered, Why the heck is this story here? My guess is that Kunzru wants to say, This is what socialism looks like. It’s just as violent and oppressive as fascism. The left is no better. Because this is the perspective of the far-right. And Kunzru is just about to give voice to that perspective.

¤

After the abrupt swerve of Monika’s digression, the narrator meets the creator of Blue Lives at a fancy party in Berlin. Here, things accelerate. For “the writer Gary Bridgeman,” who introduces himself as Anton, serves as a catalyst for the narrator’s breakdown. The violence of Blue Lives feel threatening, personally, to the narrator, and so he tries to get Anton to talk about Maistre and the philosophy behind the show. After witty attempts to brush off his intentions as mere entertainment, Anton accepts the narrator’s challenge and invites him to go out to eat. Just before they leave the party, Anton oddly tells the narrator, “Follow me of your own free will, for I have opened the book of secrets.” (Anton later says he’s “the Magus of the North.” With such bits of mystical rhetoric, Kunzru taps into the often-overlooked spiritual aspect of white supremacy; many contemporary far-right Germans practice Odinism, for example, or Heathenry, identifying with ancient pagan religion rather than Christianity.) And here, faced with the choice of following Anton and his friends into a dingy Turkish restaurant or fleeing for the U-Bahn, the narrator feels as if Anton was about to initiate him into a mystery, “offer me the red pill.”

But what unfolds at the restaurant isn’t what the narrator expects. While the narrator blissfully scarfs down döner, Anton abruptly says he and his friend Greg are from Los Angeles, so they grew up “knee-deep in Jews.” Their other friend Karl, a German, “doesn’t like his culture being polluted by immigrants.” Their friend Tara “doesn’t want to have to worry about rape.” They all “have an aversion to being told what to do. To having things forced on them.” Stunned by the hostility, the narrator doesn’t have much of a response, other than calling Anton’s words “[p]lain old-fashioned racism.” This is what Anton expects, and he responds, “And there it is! We are ruled out of play. No need to listen to us anymore.” That is, by dismissing a perspective — “a preference,” as Anton calls it — with the generic term racism, the narrator ignores the nuance of the argument, and thereby loses it. After all, outside a framework of Enlightenment values, the charge of racism is meaningless.

The narrator’s failure to form a strong counterargument allows Anton to get into his head, and he drops into crisis. Asked to leave the Deuter Center, he convinces himself he’s in a metaphysical battle with Anton, stalking him to Paris, and then to an island off the coast of Scotland — that is, in the mystical North of white supremacist ideology. And there, in a bothy (a basic shelter) near a dolmen (a Neolithic tomb), the narrator writes a profession, articulating Anton’s secret: “The secret was that all our ends and purposes were meaningless, that the truth of existence lay in a sort of ceaseless impersonal violence, merciless and without affect of any kind. This violence was not tragic or heroic or awful or arousing or just or unjust. It simply was.”

This is the red pill realization. Not a conspiracy of a Democrat cabal or other QAnon delusions, but nihilism. Because let’s face it: we’re on a planet floating in unfathomable space, on which all values and meaning and beliefs can only be mere projections. Useful, yes, beneficial, sure, but projections nonetheless. There is no such thing as right or wrong. Justice and equality, morality and civility, all make-believe. Like money, these concepts only work when people believe in them. And when they don’t, you get fascism. Rule by violence.

¤

Red Pill concludes back in New York, on Election Night, November 8, 2016. In culmination of everything he experienced over the past year, the narrator watches the alt-right memes he saw in his online rabbit holes manifest into the real world, as the trolls put their “Emperor God” into office. Kunzru initially doesn’t specify Trump’s name, as if not wanting to give him power, rather calling him “a gate, a portal through which all manner of monsters could step into our living room.”

Well, as we know four years later, the portal was opened. And I find it naïve that many people appear under the delusion that, with just the right amount of votes, the portal can be closed. Because the monsters have been let loose. Militia members now stroll numerous American cities and towns, openly carrying assault rifles. These self-styled vigilantes believe they’re protecting businesses, and they have found a strong identity and purpose through that belief. They’re not going away anytime soon. As Kunzru writes, now politics “wasn’t even a question of ideas, not straightforwardly, but feelings, atmospheres, yearnings, threats.”

Earlier this summer, the Brookings Institution explained how some militia members such as the Boogaloo Bois and “Accelerationists” aim to incite civil disorder “in order to foster polarization that will tear apart the current political order,” and “hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence.” It’s working. Riled-up people are out there on the street, not only shouting at each other, but fighting. Punching, shooting, killing. Resorting to violence as a means of political participation. Believing they’ve taken the red pill.

¤

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications.