During a town-hall interaction last month, in the run-up to the recent U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump was asked if he would denounce QAnon, a ‘dark-web’ conspiracy-theorist movement that channels and amplifies extreme right-wing propagandist messages and videos. Ever the Artful Dodger, Trump, who has cynically gathered the fruits of QAnon’s harvest of hatred, tap-danced around the question. Worse, he appeared to halfway endorse the alt-right movement, claiming that its “fight” against paedophilia — itself an expression of a deranged fake narrative that Satan-worshipping Democrats run a child sex ring — was worthy of commendation.
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Like many other surreal moments that have defined the Trump presidency, this one too starkly symbolised the mainstreaming of madness, hitherto confined to the cuckoo country of fringe outfits. Trump’s resounding defeat has done nothing to silence that ‘voice in the head’: to this day, millions of his voters endorse his Twitter rants that the election was rigged by a ‘deep state’, with the complicity of Big Tech.
Other manifestations of a similar normalisation of noxiousness abound, in the U.S. and globally. A Republican candidate who supported QAnon has now been elected to the U.S. Congress. Politics in other geographies, and nearer home, have proved to be similarly susceptible to the sway of active disinformation of giga-Goebbelsian proportions.
Sabbatical in hell
It is against such a dystopian backdrop that Hari Kunzru’s disquieting novel, about the descent of a liberal writer’s mind down the rabbit hole of a manner of madness, is framed. The listless — and unnamed — protagonist, confronting an inspiration-sapping midlife crisis and realisations of his mortality (reinforced by media images of a world in turmoil and of refugees washing up on alien shores), seizes upon a sabbatical retreat in Germany in the hope of sorting himself out. But the journey only drags him further into a hell-world, partly of his own mental making. His excessive preoccupation with privacy, bordering on paranoia, runs afoul of the spirit of openness that characterises the writers’ retreat, but in fact is a façade for whitewashed history.
Finding his sense of self slowly altered, he retreats further into the cocoon of his fevered mind, and surrenders to the deadening
distraction of an uber-violent cop show with a cold and merciless vision of the world. A chance encounter with Anton, the show’s producer, leads him to believe he is to be offered the “red pill” — the revelatory, clarifying dose of reality that will get him through the matrix and out of the swamp of moral darkness. Instead, he is compelled to question the very foundation of the liberal values he lives by, without securing any satisfactory answers.
Over a tension-laced dinner with Anton and his friends at a doner kebab outlet in Berlin, where, as the only non-Turkish patrons, they provide the ethnic “diversity” to the grouping, the writer comes face to face with the sharp edge of in-your-face racism.
Anton’s friends claim their right to their preference “to live a life without kebab”. “Racism”, they reason, is just another word for exercising “the choice” to “be with my own kind.” And the writer finds himself mocked for his foolish sentimentalism in wanting to “help other people far away, nice abstract refugees who save you from having to commit to anything or anybody or anything real”.
That up-close encounter accelerates his downward spiral, and sets him on a manic-obsessive pursuit of Anton, who by now has begun to colonise his mind, rent-free. As much as it is a spatial journey — one that Kunzru narrates in gripping prose — it is an exploration of a mind that, even in its delirious state, struggles for clarity. Why do humans have special rights, the protagonist wonders. Why are we more special than, say, an eagle or a coral reef?
As he sinks further into the slough of despond, a searing realisation dawns on him: “the most pressing problem was not my mental state but the state of the world.” It is a realisation born of a clinically forensic exercise in connecting the dots and decoding embedded alt-right messages, which shows just how much of the narrative that shapes our worldview is implanted. As he watches the 2016 presidential election results stream on television, and as Trump is borne aloft to victory on alt-right wings, he muses wryly: “My madness... is about to become everyone’s madness.”
In a sane world, Trump’s electoral defeat four years later would perhaps have served as a reassuring postscript, a satisfying bookend. The fever, we would have been told, has subsided; all is well, and regular programming will begin soon. But as the past few weeks have demonstrated, the alt-right genie — in the U.S. and around the world — isn’t about to crawl back into the bottle from which it was unleashed. Yet more delirium may be in store.
In incandescent prose, which is chilling as much as it is thrilling, Kunzru gives us a red pill to awaken us to the post-apocalyptic netherworld that awaits.
The writer is a Chennai-based journalist.
Red Pill; Hari Kunzru, Scribner UK, ₹599