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Clueless in Portland:
Blake Nelson’s The Red Pill

2,407 words

Blake Nelson
The Red Pill: A Novel
Nashville/New York: Bombardier Books, 2019

“We weren’t conducive. We got together and hypered each other into a frenzy. His wife left for a younger woman; he couldn’t make love. Eventually he was hospitalized for being such a nerd.” — The Big Chill

Blake Nelson has acquired a reputation in the “young adult” field, with successful books like Girl and Paranoid Park (also made into a rather successful indie film by Gus van Sant), but lately he seems to have begun to transition into the plain old “adult” area. Now, in The Red Pill, Nelson dares to dip a finger or two into the murky waters of the manosphere, and even the “Alt Right” (remember them?).

Many of his books, including the three just named, take place in Portland, a city he knows well from having lived there, off and on, for many years. For this book, it’s clear he has also explored the online world of game and PUA firsthand, and those more familiar with that milieu than myself will likely be able to recognize particular Websites and their resident gurus, making it –  to a minor extent – a roman a clef.

More importantly, though, it’s a story about the relations of men and women in the year 2016: a pivotal year, in retrospect, where the apparently irresistible onrush of sexual “wokeness” met the sudden roadblock of Trump, and how folks began to deal with the aftermath.

Our protagonist is one Martin, a native Portlandian who returns from New York as the co-founder of his own ad agency; now divorced, he finds that dating has changed considerably, and not for the better. On the advice of his pickup truck-driving brother-in-law, Rob, he abandons online dating sites for blogs with names like P-Crusher, and begins to work on his game. He makes some progress, but inevitably, he also begins to notice that the blogs, and Rob, have connections to a wider, even more sinister body of thought:

So this was the dirty secret of Rob’s manosphere: besides being unscrupulous pursuers of sex, they were also racist, right-wing lunatics. He shut off his computer, but then remembered he was in his office. He quickly turned it back on and frantically cleared the browser history. Only when he was sure all traces of the offensive material were gone could he safely leave the room. He went to the bathroom and washed his hands and face.

Now, this is literary fiction, not manosphere agitprop; it’s not about how Martin came for dating advice and stayed to become a MAGA-hatted shitlord (spoiler: he doesn’t); nor is it an “expose” of the Trumpen-Nazis who secretly run the manosphere to ensnare naïve losers like, well, Martin (or this goober).

Rather, when, soon after, Martin begins his online self-tutorial in game, Trump’s victory takes everyone by surprise,[1] the latter acts like a kind of neutron shit-bomb, polluting the entire environment with the image of a President Pickup Artist;[2] the resulting political hostility, smoldering and otherwise, mirrors at large the hostile personal world of men and women:

“What do the bank people say, in general? What do they think?”

“Honestly, it kinda breaks down male-female. I mean, a lot of the guys say they don’t like Trump. But it’s hard to tell if they mean it.”

In fact, there are three levels here: the micro world of dating, the macro world of Trump vs. the Woke, and eventually a mid-level world, when Martin’s Chad boss picks the wrong intern to harass, ultimately leading to the collapse of the agency and destroying Martin’s chance to work in advertising ever again.

Nelson is at his best in exploring these various levels of post-Trump derangement; conversations become wary and cautious, men trying not to start something, women edgily looking for a reason to be offended; parties become community theater productions of Pinter:

“I can’t stand Trump,” said Sadie. “I mean, Rob is more . . . . What do you think, Rob? Rob thinks he has some good ideas.”

Rob straightened up. “He probably shouldn’t be insulting Mexicans,” he said.

“It just sounds weird,” said Courtney. “Like if you’re running for president . . . there’s things you don’t say . . .”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to win,” said Wayne. “Maybe it’s a publicity stunt.”

“Martin used to live in New York,” said Sadie. “What do people in New York think of Trump, Martin?”

Martin shrugged. “I think he’s considered a joke. In New York City, anyway.”

“He won’t be a joke if he wins,” said Rob.

“Rob likes him,” Sadie said to the group, looking at her husband.

“I’m just saying,” said Rob. “He’s not that different from other Republicans. Other people have said the exact same things.”

“See what I got here?” Sadie said to Courtney. “I married a Republican.”

“Wayne is like that sometimes,” Courtney confided to Sadie. “I think we agree and then I realize he’s off in his own little world.”

Even Rob begins to wonder if Trump’s worth all the hassle:

“She’s constantly on the phone with her friends,” Rob quietly continued. “And you know the bullshit they’re all feeding each other on Facebook. God only knows what she’s thinking. And fucking Trump. I mean, he’s not doing married guys any favors, mouthing off like he does. Guys on my crew say that too. Women get pissed off at Trump, and then it’s the husband who gets it. He’s not putting us in a good position.”

Typically, Martin responds with “a surge of self-pity for his own lack of a family. Why didn’t he have kids? Why didn’t he have a wife to worry about and get into ideological arguments with?”

If I have any major criticism, it’s that I find it difficult to work up any sympathy for our protagonist. In a novel of this length, it should have been possible to sketch in, at least, some idea of where he comes from and what makes him tick; more than just, I suppose, “Well, that’s the way men are these days.” Within a couple dozen pages of the end, Martin muses that, “Despite the improvements he’d made in his life, he was still who he was: an observer, a guest, an uncle, not a central figure.”

And this, dear Reader, is our protagonist.[3] Henry James may have tried something like that, but the jury’s still out on it as an acceptable narrative strategy.

“So, you’ve always lived in Portland then?” said Shelby.

“Yes,” said Martin. “I mean, no. I mean, I grew up here. Then I went back east for college and after that I worked for an advertising agency in New York for ten years. Then I left there and came back home and ended up working with another ad guy I knew, and we eventually started our own agency . . . .”

Why did he become an ad man, with his own agency even; what’s up with that? If I may make the comparison, Martin is as much a cypher as Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, rather than his fully fleshed out character on Mad Men.

How had he acted when he interviewed for his first ad job at twenty-four? He didn’t remember. It probably hadn’t mattered.

Speaking of which, I’m not sure why Nelson chose to make his protagonist an ad man, even the founder of an agency, at all; he seems to have little interest in the field. Every now and then he remembers that the reader might expect some reflections or insights on the ad game:

“Did you notice that different ads run at different times?” Martin asked Little Jack, as people began to eat.

Jack wasn’t paying attention. Rob said to the boy, “Uncle Martin is talking to you, bub.”

Jack looked up. “No,” he said.

“Dilly Dilly is an ad for beer, and beer is mostly for men. So that ad runs during sports shows and basketball games.”

“Okay,” said Jack, cheerfully swinging his legs under his seat.

“Dilly Dilly is something someone had to think up,” continued Martin. “That’s what we do at my job. We sit around and think up things that people will like and remember.”

Jack had lost all interest.

Indeed. The closest we get to some insight into what rattles around in Martin’s skull is when one of his steadies (do people still use that word?) interrogates him about his futile job hunt:

“Do you love advertising?”

Martin thought about it. He looked down at his plate.

“Yeah. I do.”

“What do you love about it?”

“It’s fun. It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done. It’s looking at the world and seeing things, seeing patterns . . . .” Martin felt a sadness welling up inside him. “What do people like? What do people relate to? And making them laugh. Being funny. And seeing something in the culture a half-second before everyone else sees it . . . .” Martin was getting choked up. He cut into his steak.

It seems rather half-hearted; there’s nothing here that suggests a Don Draper type, the kind of advertising talent that could meet the Surgeon General’s report with the slogan, “It’s toasted!” (“Change the conversation”), or the existential imagination that could turn meditations on a failed marriage into a pitch for the Kodak slide projector (“It’s not a wheel, it’s a carousel”), or the drive to create not just one, but two, or even three agencies within a decade.

The third season finale of Mad Men actually covered much the same ground: paralleling divorce, dismantling an ad agency, pitching a series of seductive stories, the new roles of men and women, the death of Camelot (= rise of Trump) and the seismic shifts in society – but unlike The Red Pill, delivered moments that brought all these disparate themes together so brilliantly, I can only quote them as blank verse; here’s Don Draper, master of Game, delivering his pitch:

There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me, and something happened.
Something terrible.[4]
And the way that they saw themselves is gone.
And nobody understands that.
But you do.
And that’s very valuable.

Is it?

With you or without you, I’m moving on.
And I don’t know if I can do it alone.
Will you help me?

What if I say no? You’ll never speak to me again.

No.
I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.[5]

Martin is certainly no Don Draper, but something about his sad-sackery did remind me of an early scene from The Big Chill: Michael’s description (quoted above) of his hapless – and possibly fictitious – partner in a business venture that another character later calls “that stupid club of yours.”

Then I realized that the passage from The Big Chill to The Red Pill – barely more than a generation – leaves these characters seemingly in entirely different universes. The Pill’s Portland people seem to have no clues, although they are searching for what they’re supposed to do with their lives; hence the need for the manosphere, however toxic.

The Chillers, despite being the wretched refuse of the ‘60s, have a very good idea of what they’re supposed to be doing: having a family, if not necessarily getting married.[6] Even Michael, the proto-pickup artist, has a wife back in New York (which of course just makes him even more of a scumbag). His ham-fisted attempts to seduce Chloe (a remarkably anti-Semitic trope for a Hollywood film) are mere comic relief. Otherwise, the main plot involves Meg, the hard-driving career woman, who’s semi-desperately looking for someone to impregnate her, no strings attached; even if it’s her best friend and host’s husband.

It may not be “traditional family values,” but however “chilly it is out there,” it’s a lot less nihilistic than the world Martin confronts.

Even the problems of the dating world are inverted, presented from the woman’s POV, involving the inadequacy and neurosis of the men, as in this iconic exchange:

Meg: They’re either married or gay. And if they’re not gay, they’ve just broken up with the most wonderful woman in the world, or they’ve just broken up with a bitch who looks exactly like me. They’re in transition from a monogamous relationship and they need more space. Or they’re tired of space, but they just can’t commit. Or they want to commit, but they’re afraid to get close. They want to get close, and you don’t want to get near them.

Sarah: It can’t be that bad.

Meg: I don’t know. I’m goin’ easy. I’ve been out there dating for twenty years. I’ve gotten where I can tell in the first fifteen seconds if there’s a chance in the world.[7]

Sarah: Well, at least you’re giving them a fair shot.

Of course, the elements here of what I’ve called “Bloomsbury morality” might just be the seeds that led to the social collapse we see in The Red Pill.[8] In that way, it is an existential novel, in Colin Wilson’s sense: It uses fiction to explore the consequences, in real life, of a set of ideas; in this case, second wave feminism and the “Alt Right” response. Despite the caveats already noted, Nelson’s novel can be enthusiastically recommended to Counter-Currents readers, or anyone else, if they are interested in an engagingly written look at that ideological conflict, grounded in keen observation rather than more ideology.

Notes

[1] Like Pauline Kael and Nixon, no one seems to know anyone who could have voted for him.

[2] “She’s your sister. Don’t you know how much she hates Trump? He’s a rapist.”

[3] “A stranger comes to town, touches no one’s life, and leaves” is how Crow T. Robot summarizes the story arc in Coleman Francis’ movie The Skydivers.

[4] This scene takes place on Sunday, December 15, 1963.

[5] Mad Men, Episode 0313, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” The boys on Reddit try to decode the dialogue here.

[6] Meg: “So here I sit on my ticking biological clock, and the only thing I’ve known in my entire life is that I want to have a child.”

[7] I guess the PUAs are right!

[8] I discuss this in “Of Costner, Corpses, & Conception: Mother’s Day Meditations on The Untouchables & The Big Chill,” reprinted in The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics & Popular Culture; Second, Embiggened Edition; edited by Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2017); see also F. Roger Devlin, Sexual Utopia in Power: The Feminist Revolt Against Civilization (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2015). Oddly enough, both books have been banned by Amazon as “hate speech.”

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One Comment

  1. Viv
    Posted July 6, 2019 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    This book was a great read. I devoured it in basically a day. Very funny and astute. Would recommend.

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