Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

“A library at night is full of sounds: The unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.”

Confusion galore! What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a relentlessly inventive and delightfully playful collection of interlocked short stories. These intentionally bewildering fabulist stories are inhabited by off-kilter characters who find themselves in increasingly fantastical scenarios. Magical keys, doors, puppets, and houses populate their lives, and Oyeyemi treats these elements with little fanfare. While readers will find her characters’ circumstances and misadventures to be bizarre to the extreme, they seem relatively nonplussed by how weird and absurd their lives are. While I loved that these stories celebrated books and creativity, and I found the quirky dialogues and character responses to be amusing, I did have a hard time figuring out what the hell was happening. The stories begin with little ceremony, plunging straight into bizarroland. It isn’t often clear where or when we are but we are made to accept these stories offbeat premises. Rather than having straightforward plotlines, these stories seem to be composed of eccentric vignettes that aren’t going in any particular direction. The stories seem to end randomly, providing no real closure or insight into whatever these characters were going through.
leaving me feeling rather The carnivalesque elements embedded in these narratives brought to mind la commedia dell’arte (i believe pulcinella gets a mention). These stories are so profoundly perplexing that I struggled to follow whatever was happening. While I’m sure this was intentional, it did work against my being able to feel involved in whatever was going on. Still, I did appreciate Oyeyemi’s British humor. I also loved how casually queer these stories are.
If you are a fan of absurdist tales, this may be a collection worth checking out.

my rating: ★★★

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Despite its short length (100 pages or so), it took me several attempts to actually finish The Empress of Salt and Fortune. The first time I picked it up I only managed to reach the halfway mark. A few months later I tried again (from the start) but once again found myself growing bored by it. Finally, I gave this a lost shot today and I can’t say that it was worth reading after all. The first few pages are intriguing but this type of novella is clearly more interested in aesthetics and atmosphere than story or characters.

The world-building is vague, we are given more descriptions about objects and accessories than actual people and their environment. The story-within-story structure feels a bit gimmicky, especially with the constant use of ‘do you understand?’. The feminist angle also felt somewhat unsatisfying as I was expecting to feel the ‘anger’ promised by its summary. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting a handmaiden/queen sapphic tale but sadly The Empress of Salt and Fortune is no Fingersmith. The novella seemed more focused on replicating a certain fairy-tale ambience than actually providing dimensional characters and places. Maybe I would have felt differently if I hadn’t recently read The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri…maybe not.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Sankofa by Chibundu Onuzo

A poignant novel exploring a complicated father-daughter relationship is ultimately weighed down by unnecessary side-characters and by a superficial approach to serious issues. While I appreciate the themes the author touches upon in Sankofa, I found this novel to lack cohesiveness. The story begins with Anna, daughter of a white Welsh mother and a Black father from a fictional country in West Africa, who is in her late forties and in the process of separating from her husband. Not only Anna is grieving her marriage but her mother, who died months previously. Anna chances upon her estranged father’s old journals. Her mother revealed very little of his identity, giving Anna a name, Francis Aggrey, and not much else. Through her father’s entries, Anna glimpses for the first time in her life her father’s character. These journals relate his time in England, the racism he experienced, the friends he made, his politics, as well as his brief relationship with Anna’s mother.
Anna is amazed to discover the role her father played in his country’s liberation from colonial rule and shaken to learn that many went on to speak of his time as Bamana’s Prime Minister as resembling a dictatorship. In a rather conventional way, the novel sees Anna traveling to Bamana to meet her father who is unaware of her existence.
The story is at its best when it focuses on Anna time with her now an elderly father. His entries were certainly compelling but, as Anna herself notes, some of what he does is questionable indeed. I also found that Anna’s analysis of his entries detracted from the entries themselves. She would simply go on to reiterate what had just happened in the actual entry so that most of her observations came across as banal and or obvious. And why in the world did she have to keep on repeating his name and surname every time she mentioned/thought of him?
Anna’s experience at Bamana had its interesting moments. For example, she quickly realizes that to the locals she is white and that her view of African countries such as Bamana betrays her Westerner gaze (she takes for granted certain things, acts rashly without considering the repercussion of her actions, and applies her anglicized views on certain events and or encounters). Although few, Anna’s recollections of her childhood and her mother were also compelling. Anna’s mother seemed unwilling to admit that her daughter could be treated differently because of being Black, often downplaying Anna’s experiences of racism or using the ‘I see no color’ card
Most of the secondary characters, with perhaps the exception of Anna’s ‘new’ siblings, were rather one-dimensional or played bizarre roles in Anna’s story. For instance, she meets this man and most of their interactions have this quality of unease, a certain something that made me think he was a danger to her, but no, his terrible attempts at flirting and creepy behavior are all of a sudden brushed away (?).
Anna’s husband remains a nondescript figure while her daughter, who is in her twenties, comes across as a teenager more often than not, practically bullying her mother into divorcing her dad. The daughter has an eating disorder and this is something that is used to create tension between her and Anna. And I, for one, did not care for it. Why include this issue if you are just using it to add some ‘drama’?
The most eventful part of the story happens in the last portion of the novel. Here Anna and her relationship with her father and his country come to the forefront of the story (coincidentally it is here that her daughter, husband, weirdo guy are pushed to the sidelines).
As I said, I appreciate most of the themes incorporated in this novel and the author’s discussion on race, colonialism, poverty, and cultural differences. However, her characters often came across as little more than names on a page, Anna more so than her father. She was a housewife so the story addresses how that decision affected her life but still, even without a career/job one can have a personality, and Anna did not. She functions as a vehicle, someone who is there to move the story along and to make the most basic of observations. There was a lot of repetition, most of these were Anna reiterating something that has just been said (such her thinking ‘Anna is an anagram of Nana’ just after someone had told her that if you move the letters in Anna you get Nana and vice-versa). I also cared little for the present-tense of her narration.
Overall, this was a somewhat patchy novel and although I did not particularly care for it I would probably read something else by this author and I recommend prospective readers to check out some more positive reviews.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆


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The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

 

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Once upon a time…
The Magic Fish is quite possibly one of the most beautiful, poignant, and awe-inspiring graphic novels I have ever read. The story takes places in 90s America and we follow Tiến, a young boy, who loves reading fairy tales with his parents. Tiến’s parents are refugees from Vietnam and cannot speak English as fluidly as he does. This language barrier makes it hard for Tiến to confide in them that he is queer.
The mother/son relationship in The Magic Fish is complex and moving. The bond between mother and son is rendered with empathy and sensitivity. The three fairy tales Tiến reads in the course of the narrative allow him to connect with his parents, in particular his mother.
Although each story is inspired by an existing fairy tale, Trung Le Nguyen presents us with three unique takes which perfectly complement Tiến and his mother’s stories. The first two tales are based on variants of ‘Cinderella’ (the German ‘Allerleirauh’ and the Vietnamese ‘Tấm Cám’) while the last one is a reworking of ‘The Little Mermaid’. I loved the different aesthetics of these tales: the first one has a Europeanesque setting, the second one seems to take place in 1950s Vietnam, and the last, this according to the author, juxtaposes the mermaid’s realm, which has elements from Hong Kong wuxia films, with the human one, 1980s San Francisco.
Trung Le Nguyen’s illustrations are stunning (they reminded me of Moto Hagio and Daisuke Igarashi). I loved the way in which each narrative had a distinctive colour palette.
Trung Le Nguyen set out to tell a specific story and he definitely succeeded in doing so. The Magic Fish is simply stunning and I will definitely pick up whatever Trung Le Nguyen writes/draws next.


my rating: ★★★★★

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

“I am nothing,” Cardan said, “if not dramatic.”

Holly Black’s prose is as tantalising as ever.
The tales collected in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories focus on Cardan. We learn more of his childhood and get to see certain scenes and events from The Cruel Prince through his perspective.
Stories are at the heart of this volume as Cardan has various encounters with the troll Aslog who presents him with different spins on the same tale (in which a boy with a sharp tongue is cursed with a heart of stone…sounds familiar?).
Although Cardan is as capricious and dramatic as ever we do get to see why he is the way he is. Black does not condone his behaviour and there is some great character development on his part.
The illustrations are simply stunning. There are quite a lot and they are all beautiful. Rovina Cai’s style and the tones she uses really suit this Black’s faerie world.
If you are a fan of The Folk of the Air trilogy I would definitely recommend you pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.

I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong.
As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.

I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence.
This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”.
Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals.
As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.).
The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness.
Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself.
What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.

The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality?
Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”.
Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong.
He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist).
I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest.
The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words.
The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them.
Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control.
Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader.
The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware.
While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.

In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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