The Revolution of Everyday Life

Overthrow BY Caleb Crain. New York: Viking. 416 pages. $27.

The cover of Overthrow

In the eight years since a small group of anti-capitalist activists set up camp in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street has generated its own literary subgenre: Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and Ling Ma’s Severance all feature scenes of the 2011 protests. In these novels, the Occupy movement, with its non-programmatic political aims and nonviolent tactics, represents a particularly utopian way of thinking about contemporary revolution—one that is less about direct action than it is about nonaction, about indirection.

Caleb Crain’s new novel, Overthrow, likewise organizes its narrative of recent history around the events of OWS. Yet unlike the Manhattan of Lethem’s and Lerner’s more traditionally realist worlds, the city in Overthrow is not designated beyond simply “the city”—an indefiniteness befitting the spirit of the Occupy movement that keeps the novel in a space of fictional possibility. “A potential rather than a quantity,” as one character, early on, says of the fluid congregation in “the park.”

This potential is felt everywhere in Overthrow, whose title suggests the propulsive energy of an action that threatens to over-deliver. The novel’s striking cover art depicts a mass of bodies in tilted motion against a bright red background, and its narrative tells of a group of young adults who get unwittingly embroiled in a government espionage plot. The story begins quietly: Matthew, a lonesome thirty-one-year-old graduate student in English, is walking home from the subway as the sun sets.

Dusk had caught the houses along the street with their blinds still undrawn, and living room after living room was exposed, glowing in bright display. Was it wrong to look into them? It was like looking into lives that one wasn’t going to get to live.

This imaginative self-insertion into the lives of others is interrupted when Matthew spots a cute younger skateboarder standing right there on the street. His name is Leif. “I’m on my way to a friend’s,” he says. “Do you want to come?” Matthew does.

This encounter spurs the novel’s plot. Matthew follows Leif, who brings him to one of those living rooms that he, a moment ago, was merely fantasizing about: “The best part of picking people up, Matthew sometimes thought, was seeing the insides of strangers’ homes, the apartments of people that a grad student in English might otherwise not even get to talk to.” Inside the carefully stylized bohemian space, with its reupholstered furniture and “allusions to a tradition that it hadn’t quite inherited,” Leif introduces Matthew to the willowy Elspeth, a fact-checker at an unnamed New Yorker–like magazine, and her “scruffy, fair-haired” boyfriend, Raleigh. The final two members of their emergent social network of liberal young aesthetes are Julia and Chris.

Lewis Hammond, Shield (detail), 2018, oil on linen, 13 3⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".
Lewis Hammond, Shield (detail), 2018, oil on linen, 13 3⁄4 × 11 3⁄4″.

Poised at a particularly listless moment in his adult life—stalled on his dissertation about sixteenth-century kingship while his more industrious friends have all moved away for fellowships and jobs—Matthew is unusually susceptible to this shiny and novel world. While older and less politically conscious than his idealistic new friends, he finds himself volunteering alongside them at the burgeoning Occupy movement across the river. During his first visit to “the encampment,” Matthew senses something in the air:

The scent of new governance, it might be called. People here felt that they were getting in at the beginning. Everything was going to be rebuilt from scratch; there was so much to be done. Acts had to be fresh and arbitrary, like a gardener’s with seedlings, tender at one moment and cruel the next. Free of history and also pregnant with it.

Like Crain’s first novel, Necessary Errors (2013), which takes place in Prague immediately after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Overthrow is about upheaval, both interpersonal and political. Yet whereas Necessary Errors remains firmly in the realm of realism, Overthrow perpetually flirts with the science-fictional possibility of telepathy. Matthew’s introduction to Leif’s friends happens around a scene of attempted ESP, in which Elspeth asks him to intuit and describe the tarot cards in her hands. “We used to do it at school,” Elspeth explains to Matthew, “and when we started going to Occupy, it seemed like we should take it up again. As an alternate means of communication.” The friends call themselves “the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings,” a title drawn from OWS’s working groups whose lengthiness gently mocks their aims for intellectual precision. Crain describes the exact mechanisms of the mind reading with a light touch, nimbly toggling between social realism and genre fiction. Mind reading might carry all the associations of the fantastical, yet it is also, for this particular group, about “reading” people in all their nuances and sensitivities. (Queer people, notably, seem more attuned to the act of reading others.) By leaving the question of whether the telepathy actually works up for grabs, the novel asks readers to be as open as Matthew to its speculative potential.

After its first chapter, Overthrow abruptly leaves Matthew’s perspective and instead goes on—in the way novels do—to read the minds of its other primary characters. Elspeth, Raleigh, Julia, and Chris all get chapters around their personal viewpoints; some of them even get two. The work for the reader is to start piecing together these individual, and oftentimes contesting, perspectives in order to glean the larger picture. Overthrow draws narrative momentum from the suspense that comes with not knowing. Information emerges unevenly, belatedly—not only for the reader, but for characters as well. The working group believes in their own powers of telepathy, but what they don’t yet realize is that the government is also keeping tabs on them, albeit with technology more digital than paranormal. Like the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the G20 summits, Occupy was under heightened surveillance from the beginning. After a police crackdown on the camps, the working group, in the spirit of protest, attempts to hack a for-profit contractor’s computer—a single act that leads to a series of arrests, from which the latter half of the novel spins out. Reading onward, we learn that against the plot concerning our main characters lies a much more sinister counter-plot; against each attempt at activist hacking, a reassertion of state-mandated counter-hacking. The central paradox of reading Crain’s novel is that even as we learn more, these revelations often return us to just how little it is we know at all. Each new chapter—each additional character perspective—brings a vantage that retroactively realigns how we understood those that preceded it.

The mind reading in Overthrow reflects upon the mind reading that we practice whenever we open a novel. Crain is profoundly aware of this and seeks to make readers aware of it too. The novel is acutely self-reflexive about its literariness, weaving references to The Princess Casamassima (1886) and sixteenth-century poetry into its pages. The main characters are almost all, in their own way, writers. Matthew writes academic prose, Elspeth writes blog posts, and Raleigh writes code. Leif works as a barista but is arguably the most serious writer among the group: In his spare time, he pens utopian manifestos and lyric poetry. And Julia—in what is perhaps a biting self-conscious jab at Crain himself—sits at the edges of the novel’s events, attempting to commit them to memory so that she might write about them one day herself. Crain has described his book in relation to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novelization of the nineteenth-century utopian Brook Farm community in The Blithedale Romance (1852). Like all utopias, Brook Farm ultimately fails. And part of Hawthorne’s fictional reframing of it is to mark it as exactly that: a fiction. Refusing to name New York, Crain does something similar in Overthrow, keeping the Occupy movement in the generic space of romance.

The narrative of Overthrow might itself be described as a competition of data versus poetry, information versus secrecy, knowing versus not knowing. For while Crain takes up the contemporary subjects of digital surveillance and technological terrorism, the novel itself sides with uncertainty and unknowing. “A green thought in a green shade”—a line from metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”—functions as a kind of shared chorus. And though dramatically plotted, Overthrow seems repeatedly to defer to this green thought, this green shade. It is, at heart, a novel that repeatedly asks: What makes a good reader? One answer can be found in its running investment in mind reading as a particularly queer way of knowing. Take, for instance, this early meditation on why queerness might heighten one’s capacity to obfuscate.

In their first years of adjusting to an open sexuality, gays seemed to like to tell stories about themselves that were elaborate. Matthew’s explanation was that it took time to learn to do without the machinery of hiding, and for a while one’s story remained encumbered with unnecessary structure. He guessed that Leif’s myth of himself had such a character. To protect himself, Leif had probably accreted a layer of self-regard, like a shell, which he was soon going to find it convenient to break. It would fracture along the seam of its implausibility.

Crain’s prose sparkles most when it returns to scenes of private interiority, of personal anguish and emotional attunement. Even as the book conjures the dystopian potential of twenty-first-century techno-capitalism, its best scenes remain its more textured intimate moments. If the state seeks to conquer by force, then the kind of revolution Overthrow proposes—however cautiously—is one that rests in forms of unspoken, telepathic consent. It’s the kind of affective connection we might find, for instance, in a novel.

Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in Oakland.