Three years ago, the Bundeswehr initiated an unlikely experimental program at the University of Tübingen. “Project Cassandra,” which was exactly the codename you would want a secretive military program to be named, was led by an enigmatic professor named Jürgen Wertheimer, which is exactly what you would want his name to be. They developed a program capable of sifting through metadata and applying an algorithm to ascertain where future conflict would occur. They were unusually successful, foreseeing turmoil in Algeria, Kosovo, and Nigeria that political scientists had missed, all the more impressive because Wertheimer is a literature professor. Philip Oltermann explained in The Guardian that the Bundeswehr believes writers possess a “sensory talent” in identifying “social trends, moods and especially conflicts that politicians prefer to remain undiscussed until they break out into the open.” If writers hear subsonic vibrations just below the crust, then by reading an aggregate of them there might be a way to predict the future. “Writers represent reality in such a way that their readers can instantly visualize a world and recognize themselves inside it,” Wertheimer told Oltermann, after the former had traded in tweed for cammo.
Well, that’s one alt-ac career path. Ignoring the rumors that the CIA and the NSA have long recruited translators at those dreary annual meetings of the MLA held in frigid Boston or Chicago, there is an enigmatic, furtive allure to Project Cassandra, not to mention a practicality, because Wertheimer’s central conceit is obviously correct. George Orwell predicted telescreens in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and now we willingly give our privacy away in the blackness of our Androids. Aldous Huxley claimed in Brave New World that our future would be anesthetized bliss, and now our dopamine rushes are supplied by pawing at the screens of those same Androids. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, and now Texas. Oltermann mentions John Brunner’s 1968 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel, Stand on Zanzibar, which envisions the 2010 ascendancy of the Chinese economy and the United State’s response as led by “President Obomi.” I’ve long suspected that literature provides intimations of where we’re headed, and though that wasn’t my purpose when I set out digesting novels this year (my purpose was just to read) by this November I felt like I had been listening to a chorus of Sibyls.
my operative mode for comprehending reality. Making lists, dividing the year
into units, divining some overall theme to things, whether teaching or planning
my weekend, is how I exist. Just like an engineer looks at the universe and
sees a computer, I examine my own life and I see a college class. So, in
January, when setting out to decide what I’d read this year, I made a syllabus
of sorts, though I wouldn’t know the title of the class until the end of the term.
Rather than just perusing my local library stacks, the unvaccinated version of
me from last New Year used The Millions’ “Most Anticipated”
lists for 2020 and 2021 and compiled a few dozen titles that sounded
interesting. I’d inadvertently gathered what Wertheimer would consider a statistical
Everything in this essay came from that initial list; I don’t include any books that I already reviewed for sites, nor titles I consulted in my writing, or the hundredth time I flipped through Paradise Lost. By the nature of this list, all of these books were newly published, though presumably most of them were written before the pandemic. Much to my own embarrassment none of these titles was in translation, and the majority were by Americans with a few Brits thrown in. Because of my parochialism, and 12 months later I feel as if I’ve divined the unforged smithy of our national soul, for each of the novels provided a glimpse of living in the last days of empire, like the parable of the blind men describing an elephant, if this pachyderm was instead our rapidly fraying social contract. Our age is one of pandemic, supply chain breakdowns, economic collapse, and nascent fascism, and our writers have responded by crafting subverted Great American Novels, writing tomes of collapse, be it national, spiritual, personal. Each book taxonomizes the passing of anything that even remotely looked like it could be described naively as the “American Dream.”
The title of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies announces itself as being concerned exactly with the themes that the traditional Great American Novel dabbles with. “Homeland” with its connotations of the vaguely-totalitarian federal agency that emerged in the wake of 9/11 and which often targeted Muslims, and “Elegies” with all of the grandiose and mournful implications of recognizing something that has passed. Narratively ambitious and sprawling, Homeland Elegies concerns a narrator named “Ayad Akhtar,” a Pakistani-American raised in Wisconsin and living in New York who bares more than a passing resemblance to the author whose name is on the cover. An acclaimed playwright before he was a novelist, Akhtar is often positioned as the Philip Roth of Islam, a fearless Muslim-American willing to portray his community in all of its complexities without desire to placate or whitewash, such as in his controversial Tony Award winning Disgraced.
Homeland Elegies follows his not-quite-identical roman a clef backwards and forwards from the present day of his professional success (around 2018) to Akhtar’s Midwestern childhood, while dropping in on events like 9/11, the 2008 economic collapse, and the election of Donald Trump as 45th president of these disunited states (indeed Trump is a character in Homeland Elegies, by connection to the author’s cardiologist father). Hyphenated Americans have historically been slurred as somehow “less than” the nationality than appears on the right side of that dash, but Akhtar is an American prophet who understands that the nation is in free-fall. Neither memoir nor autofiction, Homeland Elegies is best described by its author as a curated social media feed, a place where truth and fiction mingle in that ever-chimerical invention of the self. At the core is the complicated relationship of father and son, and the book is both about immigration and assimilation, but more than that, it’s a condemnation of American materialism, excess, and the illusory promises of the city on a hill. “America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained,” writes Akhtar, “a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought.”
Andrea Lee imagines a luscious estate among the detritus of past empires in Red Island House, her sumptuous novel published after a 15-year hiatus. Philadelphia-born Lee has spent the bulk of her adult life in Italy, and that worldly cosmopolitanism is evident in these interconnected short stories that chattily explores the family and staff who live in the titular mansion. A massive rose-hued house in Madagascar overlooking the Indian Ocean that is built by a Falstaffian Italian industrialist for his younger African American wife, Red Island House upturns expectations. In her author’s note, Lee writes that this is a “novel about foreigners in Madagascar; its viewpoints and its ‘voice’ are those of an outsider looking in,” and with shades of V.S. Naipaul and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o she proves as adept at describing the haunted beauty of Madagascar as she was describing the Tuscan countryside in earlier works, a master stylist reinventing the post-colonial novel.
Shay Gilliam is an Oakland-born, upper-class Black professor of African-American literature at an Italian university who spends her off season on the windy, mango-grove shores of her husband’s pastoral idyll, a woman for whom Africa was a “near-mythical motherland” who discovers that the complexities of colonialism are often individual and that as a result our identities are always relative. Gilliam’s sometimes boorish husband, a working-class street kid made good, is “dizzied by the infinite possibilities offered by using first world money in a third world country, one of the poorest on earth.” A novel of current breezes and expats in white suits plying local girls with rum, of grilled fish on the beach and tourists on mopeds speeding past unimaginable poverty. Across 10 chapters and two decades, Red Island House shows the cankers in both paradise and marriage. Characters shift in and out, people are introduced only to disappear, and Gilliam’s perceptions always dance about true self-insight, even as it becomes clear that a similar complexion is all that unites her to this island’s inhabitants.
History similarly haunts Danielle Evans’s excellent short story collection The Office of Historical Corrections. The Office of Historical Corrections seamlessly moves from humor to poignancy. “Boys Go to Jupiter” details the social media fallout after a coed who posts a picture on Instagram of herself in a Confederate flag bikini, a story that says more about so-called “cancel culture” than 100 editorials, while “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” acts as both parody of pretentious art culture and meditation on the #MeToo movement and the ways that powerful men still escape culpability.
It’s the titular novella that’s the true standout however, “The Office of Historical Corrections” following a mystery as investigated by Cassie and Genevieve, two often antagonistic childhood friends turned grad school adversaries turned agents in an invented federal agency named the Office of Public History. To call Evans’s story Kafkaesque is to ignore just how singular her style is, though she has a sense of the absurdity of bureaucracy, and is also aware of how history is defined by ghosts upon ghosts. Evans is also adept in sarcasm, and the title story with its federal agents printing out corrections to inaccurate historical markers is as strange and funny as anything written about the traumas of racism. “Besides the tablecloths, the décor is all old photographs and postcards that they scrounged up from wherever,” Cassie notes of a Midwestern hipster restaurant, “because you know how white people love their history right up until it’s true.” The Office of Historical Corrections is a parable for the era of Black Lives Matter and the rightful pulling down of Confederate statues, of Critical Race Theory hysteria and white grievance, a novella about passing and self-hatred, survival and violence, and how the American story can be funny except when it isn’t.
Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a doorstopper that like many recent titles (Homeland Elegies, Dario Diofebi’s Paradise, Nevada) is fundamentally a historical novel about the very recent past, in this case the year immediately following the election of Barack Obama. And like those other novels, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts combines a dizzying era of contemporary concerns—in this case punditry, finance, the publishing industry, the collapse of journalism, predictive algorithms, the Iraq War, and baseball—crafting an allegory of our present. In this case the allegory concerns Sam Waxworth, a statistical wunderkind in the mold of Nate Silver who correctly predicts every single federal race in 2008 and Frank Doyle, a columnist for a newspaper clearly based on The New York Times who’d once been a Great Society-supporting liberal lion working in the John Lindsey administration but had since transmogrified into a reactionary ogre, scotch pickling him into a George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld acolyte.
Sam has been hired to write copy for Interviewer, a publication that used to be The Atlantic but after it was purchased by a tech-bro was turned into Buzzfeed, and the young prodigy is tasked by his editor to interview Frank. The older columnist was a onetime childhood hero of Sam because of his baseball writings, but the statistician rejects Frank because of his overly romanticizing the game. Baseball is a field of battle between Sam’s sabermetrics and Frank’s poetry, as the young upstart crow from flyover country “tried to attend to the facticity of things,” while his older sparing partner understands that “polls couldn’t capture a mood. For that you needed to look around a bit.” Like all true systems novels, from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, there are a panoply of characters, namely Frank’s entire immediate family (Sam starts an affair with the columnist’s daughter), and a multitude of themes are explored, none so much as what it means to choose if everything can be reduced to mathematics. When an allegory refuses didacticism for negative capability, that’s when we call it a novel, and the strength of Beha’s endeavor is that it’s not clear who exactly is sympathetic or not in the contest between Sam’s unfeeling, analytical technocracy and Frank’s painfully wrong though still fundamentally emotional perspective on life.
An English sonnet has never been as sublime as the orange sun melting into the horizon over a minor league ballpark, faint chill of desert air rustling through the stands in the seventh inning before the final beer rush, odor of sodium-nitrate saturated hot dogs and smoky peanuts hanging heavy in the air. If baseball is an undercurrent in The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, then it’s everything in Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League; interconnected short stories that are as charming as Bull Durham and as heartbreaking as Denis Johnson. A former editor for The Paris Review, Nemens follows the path of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Roth’s self-aware The Great American Novel, using baseball as the major metaphor of American life. Our national pastime, it has been supposed, brings the poet out in the accountant and the accountant out in the poet, but as anyone who is a fan knows, the calling of strikes and outs has nothing really to do with a game and actually everything to do with anything else.
The Cactus League gives kaleidoscopic perspective to the fictitious Los Angeles Lions’ preseason and their star outfielder John Goodyear who appears to be in the midst of a crackup, of sorts. Nemens’s novel is set in greater Scottsdale, the Arizona desert a fading pink and the entire city a massive suburb of itself, all gated communities, preposterous grass lawns, the big box sprawl of Phoenix, and above it all Frank Lloyd Wright’s ethereal Taliesin West. In nine interlocking stories (get it?) Nemens follows a host of characters from agent Herb Allison, to local baseball groupie (and architecture enthusiast) Tamara Rowland, the aging batting coach Michael Taylor, and Goodyear himself. The effect is sublimely dizzying as the narrative moves from one character to another, using a collage effect to underscore the consequence of baseball by bringing the players, the coaches, the wives, the reporters, and the fans to bear. Nemens’s chapters are stunningly rendered character portraits of figures who face increasingly dwindling days, like their sport and nation. “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else: everything changes. Whether it’s the slow creep of glaciers dripping toward the sea, or the steady piling up of cut stones, rock upon rock until the wall reaches the chest high, nothing is still.”
The southwest is mythic in a manner that’s unlike the overdetermined east. Puritan Yankees and Cavalier Southerners are forged into something new in the unforgiving environs of the desert, and in that way, it becomes the most American of places. Paradise, Nev., is an unincorporated town whose enigmatic name aside, most people have never heard of, though it contains some of the most iconic buildings in the United States, a neighborhood better known as the Las Vegas Strip. Paradise, Nevada is the title of the Italian novelist and former professional poker player Dario Diofebi’s massive consideration of that mirage and late capitalist America. The Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, The Venetian, the Positano—a city of excess and neon, decadence and luck (as well as its opposite). If you don’t recognize the last casino that’s because it’s the invention of Diofebi, an exact replica of the Amalfi Coast built by the reclusive billionaire Al Wiles, who constructs a kingdom of sand and water pipes AND fake Adriatic breezes and the smell of Mediterranean lemons, all to impress his wife, a Swiss model who eventually leaves him.
Diofebi uses the 600-some pages of Paradise, Nevada to portray Las Vegas in 2014 and 2015 as a microcosm of America, presenting the interlocking and eventually intersecting stories of Ray, an online poker player who absconds to Sin City to make a living, a man with too much faith in statistics and game theory; Tom, an illegal Italian immigrant who got lucky at the tables and ends up becoming embroiled with a shady vlogger and pickup artist; Mary Ann, the Mississippi raised former New York model who works as a cocktail waitress; and Lindsay, a Mormon journalist with literary ambitions confronted with whether it’s possible to serve both Mammon and Moroni. Fundamentally a novel not just about class consciousness, but more simply money—who has it and who doesn’t—Paradise, Nevada gets to the nihilistic core of American consumerism while never losing sight of the fact that all of those neon lights are gorgeous. “It’s a beautiful town to just watch,” says Wiles, “So many stories, so many myths, so many struggles. Stare at it long enough and you’ll… slowly convince yourself that all those stories amount to some kind of meaning.” Diofebi’s attempt at the great Las Vegas novel ends up being the great novel of predatory neoliberalism, though perhaps that’s the same thing.
“The Great Flu had come to America on ships along with spices and sugar,” writes Anna North in Outlawed, “then spread from husband to wife and mother to child and trader to trader by kisses and handshakes, cups of beer shared among friends and strangers, and the coughs and sneezes of men and women who didn’t know how sick.” I can guarantee that North’s Outlawed is the best alternative history feminist Western that you will read this year. A cross between Atwood and Cormac McCarthy, Outlawed imagines a turn-of-the-century Dakota several decades after a mass pandemic, and the survivors’ grandchildren live in a version of America that’s as Medieval as it is Wild West. A syncretic faith worships the baby Jesus since so much is now invested restoring the population, but women who are unable to conceive (or whose husbands are infertile) are punished as witches, the fate of Ada who is adopted by the Hole in the Wall Gang, an all-woman outlaw group whose leader is an enigmatic, androgynous and messianic figure known only as the Kid. All great science fiction should ultimately be judged by the veracity of its world building, and in this regard North’s novel is a triumph, a fully-fledged reality that’s a mirror of our own twilight civilization. As depressing as the plague ravaged misogynistic West of Outlawed may be, North’s is no dystopia, for as in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, the novel gestures towards genuine redemptive possibility, even in the ugliness of life.
Convents are emphatically different from outlaw gangs, and yet both exist outside of normal culture. Claire Luchette’s subtle, sad, and beautiful Agatha of Little Neon follows four nuns from the Diocese of Buffalo reassigned to gritty, post-industrial Warwick, R.I., where they’re to administer a half-way house for addicts and ex-convicts. Agatha is the most intellectually independent, though her religious doubts are kept to herself, even as she develops a life independent of Little Neon (the name of the house, given because of its garish green paint job) as a math teacher at a local Catholic high school. In their role as caretakers for these women and men—Tim Gary who is missing half of his face following cancer surgery; Lawnmower Jill, a drunk and junky whose nickname is derived from her favored form of transportation—the nuns often fumble in their unworldliness. Multiple themes are explored—secularism and faith, abuse and trauma, addiction and recovery. In a nation where 100,000 people died of opioid overdose this year, Luchette’s novel sings of American brokenness. Agatha of Little Neon is not a book about affordable redemption; in the tradition of the greatest Catholic novels salvation is not guaranteed nor is it cheap. This is a story about broken lives, and is all the more arresting because of it. More meditation than story, prayer than novel, Luchette’s book is the sort that in crystalline minimalist prose with nary a comma out of order, evokes midcentury existentialist classics. “We didn’t know much about addiction, about homelessness, but we know how it could look.” Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. This is the most moving book about grace and what it means to whisper a silent prayer to nobody that I read this year.
“I felt pride, of course, but something more, something better: freedom,” says Opal Jewel in Dawnie Walton’s much lauded and thoroughly brilliant The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. The titular rock star is self-assurance incarnate, a blustery, bluesy genius who emerges ex nihilo (or at least from Detroit). The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is the great rock music novel of the year, if not the decade. Walton explores the fraught dynamics between her invented duo, a folky proto-punk outfit from the early ’70s composed of Neville Charles, a sensitive Englishmen enraptured by all things American, and Opal, a young Black singer and songwriter in possession of abundant talent and style. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev follows an upcoming reunion, decades after their falling out, their own solo careers, and Altamont-style violence that marked their earliest success. Composed of interviews between figures associated with the act as conducted by Sunny Shelton, a music journalist who is the daughter of the band’s studio musician drummer whom Opal had had an affair with, the novel inevitably drew comparisons to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six. I enjoyed both books, but the strength of Walton’s novel is that Opal and Nev are so different from anything in our actual world, like an outfit composed of Nick Drake and Nina Simone, with Patti Smith on backup for good measure. Walton uses this imagined alternative musical history to explore not just the difficulties in creative partnership, but also questions of appropriation, race, and what music says that words can’t. As David Mitchell writes in his similarly brilliant rock novel Utopia Avenue, “If a song plants an idea or a feeling in the mind, it has already changed the world.”
Rock music might be the critic’s approved version of popular culture—all of those Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus essays—but in The Gimmicks, Chris McCormick explores an influential but disdained art form in professional wrestling. To say that The Gimmicks is “about” professional wrestling, the sweaty, campy, grappling of pituitary cases wearing ethnically offensive costumes in a bit of scripted drama—the purview of the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy Piper—is a misnomer. The action of The Gimmicks swirls around wrestling in the same way that The Cactus League is “about” baseball, but McCormick uses Avo Greogoryan, an immigrant from Soviet Armenia who performs under the name of the Browbeater, to explore questions about family, trauma, betrayal, diaspora, political violence, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and competitive chess strategy. Evocative of both Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer, McCormick’s trio of friends and family—Avo; his cousin, zealous Ruben Petrosian; and the woman they both love, bookish Mina Boghossian—are refugees from a collapsing empire. “It’s a marvel how memory works,” says Tony “Angel” Krill, the Browbeater’s pony-tailed manager, after he’s been noirishly recruited to find Avo following the wrestler’s disappearance, “how it holds its shape like smoke in the cold…most of my best forgetting is done on purpose.” Epic in range, McCormick’s novel depicts concrete Kirovakan in the U.S.S.R., the sun-bleached streets of Los Angeles’ Little Armenia, the arrondissements of Paris, the blindingly white homes of the Grecian shore, and the crowded alleyways of Istanbul, not to mention a thousand sad, sweat-filled, crowded, and hot gymnasiums in North Carolina, or Kentucky, or Nevada. Throughout McCormick asks what it means to be a genuine human being when kayfabe becomes your reality.
Physical power in its undiluted form is also a theme in Rufi Thorpe’s astounding The Knockout Queen. Set among the chlorinated paradise of suburban Orange County in the mid aughts, high school volleyball star Bunny Lampton, who is blonde, beautiful and 6’3”, forges an unlikely friendship with her next-door neighbor Michael, the narrator of the book, a closeted goth classmate living with his aunt in one of the lower middle-class homes of this neighborhood that’s seen a sprouting of McMansions. Bunny’s father is an alcoholic widower, a charming and deeply corrupt real estate developer who harbors Olympic dreams for his daughter, and is largely tolerant of her friendship with the haunted boy next door, whose mother is in jail for the attempted murder of her husband. The Knockout Queen deftly recreates adolescence during the first decade of this millennium, that era of low-rise jeans and autotune, but more than that it’s a brutal meditation on power in its rawest form, because “it’s different when it’s the woman who’s violent. It strikes people as abnormal. Like, it’s natural for a guy to just ‘lose his temper,’ but if a woman does the same thing, then it’s a sign of something deeper wrong, like psychologically or almost metaphysically.” From the turn of our century until today, Thorpe charts the diverging fortunes of the North Shore Princess and the boy from the other side of the tracks (or fence as it were), with The Knockout Queen marked by loyalty, dispossession, the ravages of time, and the often-startling brutality of what it means to be a human being with a human body.
In her disquieting The Divines, Ellie Eaton conveys the pain that teenagers inflict on one another. Moving with perfect narrative pacing between the late ’90s United Kingdom and contemporary Chicago and Los Angeles, The Divines is narrated by Josephine, the wealthy daughter of British expats in Hong Kong who once attended the ultra-exclusive girl’s boarding school St. John the Divine in the English countryside. Students at an institution that is far more expensive than it is good, the Divines are known for their hair flip, their cruel pranks, and their abysmal town-gown relationship with the working-class denizens of this depressing hamlet. Much more than a coming of age story—Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt posters on walls, filched cigarettes, and sweaty school dances—The Divines is about class, trauma, and violence. “Divines could be cruel, conceited, arcane, but we were faithful to the end.” High school can fuck you up, and Josephine still ruminates on her relationship with popular Skipper, her illicit friendship with the townie Lauren, her traumatic infatuation with a maintenance man, and most of all the bullying of a diminutive but shrill classmate who was marked to become a world-class figure skater. Josephine is an unreliable narrator who seems estimably reasonable, a villain lacking self-awareness who befuddles the reader, with Eaton having written a galling account of how trauma mutates, until it’s not even recognizable to the past itself.
The Divines isn’t a horror novel, but it has the feel of one—the gothic campus, the insular community, the provincial townies, and the implied murder on the first page. Horror increasingly bleeds into literary fiction. Perhaps it’s this moment, simultaneously apocalyptic and boring, dulled by social media clicks and 24-hour news, the jittery anxiety of now. No contemporary writer is as adept at malignant narrators as Ottessa Moshfegh, whose characters are worthy of Poe or Dostoevsky. Moshfegh’s latest, Death in Her Hands, is a worthy addition to her oeuvre. Narrated by Vesta Gull, an elderly widow who relocates to a small town that seems like New England, discovers a note in the woods that reads “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body,” though sans an actual corpse. Vesta becomes obsessed, spinning intricate plots. Death in Her Hands is not quite a murder mystery and not quite gothic, but something far darker. Teddy Wayne also penned a not-quite-horror-novel in his disturbing Apartment, where rather than a cursed manse the story is placed in Columbia’s MFA program, haunted by an awkward, obsessive, slightly creepy nameless narrator who finds it natural to “alter our retrospection in subtle ways, to airbrush our unpalatable blemishes here and there.” Apartment explores the poisons of envy and resentment, class and money, and the risks of self-delusion, concluding that “Sometimes the only way to start over in life is to burn down the house.” Julie Fine offers an actual (maybe) supernatural tale in The Upstairs House, where English graduate student, ABD, and new mother Megan Weiler begins to believe that beloved children’s author Margaret Wise Brown is haunting her Chicago apartment building. “Memory… is a wild and private place to which we only return by accident, as in a dream or song,” reflects Megan in this upsetting story of postpartum depression and scholarly dissatisfaction.
No novel I read this year was quite so viscerally pertinent as Hari Kunzru’s wicked Red Pill. As he did for America’s conflicted history in White Tears, so Kunzru provides diagnosis of European sicknesses rooted deep within its poisoned blood and soil. Drawing his title from the Internet vernacular that refers to those who’ve been initiated into far-right politics, Red Pill recounts the unhinged experiences of its mild-mannered American narrator, a nameless academic who has stumbled into a year-long fellowship at a German research institute in Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where the Reich outlined the “final solution,” back when the Bundeswehr enacted a policy far more evil than just reading a lot of books. The narrator is a good liberal wearily watching the ongoing 2016 presidential election from across the Atlantic while ostensibly writing a monograph about the Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist, though he actually spends his days walking around Wannsee’s pristine environs and becoming obsessed with an ultra-violent American copaganda show called Blue Lives, which reads like a cross between Blue Bloods and The Shield, with script rewrites from Friedrich Nietzsche. The narrator becomes convinced that dangerous alt-right talking points have been encoded into Blue Lives, as he scours message boards and charts the nihilistic references that the show’s creator Anton has written into the scripts. By fortuitous coincidence, the narrator and Anton meet. “Everything he said sounded like a dare,” the narrator writes of Anton, “an outrage that was taken back as soon as it came out of his mouth. I meant it, I didn’t mean it. Sorry, not sorry.” Understanding that trolls can end up being camp guards, that transgression can slide into genocide, the narrator tries to unmask Anton, but there’s only so much he can do in a world laughingly careening towards Armageddon.
American literature is always about America itself, just as English literature is about class or German literature is about death. Though Kunzru is British, there is something integral about our psychic life displayed in Red Pill, a novel about Europe’s past and America’s future. On the evening that I finalized my reading list—including adding Red Pill to my queue—I was largely optimistic. Six weeks before, and the presidential election had delivered a result that made me hopeful. The polls in Georgia looked surprisingly good. For a bit of time, after four years of nascent authoritarianism, alt-right provocation, and dystopian machination, there were reasons to be happy. That night, I went to sleep expecting that the moral arc of the universe does tend towards justice. We should always listen to Cassandra, though. When I turned in, it was already early morning on January 6.
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