The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

12 The New York Review

Resistance Is Futile

Jason Farago

by Caleb Crain.
Viking, 404 pp., $27.

On or about December 2011, human
character changed. That month the
pope sent his first message on Twitter,
which had just rolled out a substantial
redesign whose “Discover” tab would
glean your data to push you personal-
ized news and updates. A new service
called Snapchat debuted, with which
you could string together short videos
of your daily activities into “stories” (it
became a teen obsession, and was the
first social media app to make me feel
old). Facebook introduced its “Time-
line,” a reverse- chronological biog-
raphy of your posts, photos, and likes
that together told what Mark Zucker-
berg called “the story of your life.” In
2011 Apple released the iPhone 4S,
with a new voice-operated assistant
called Siri—and, more enduringly, it
introduced a new keyboard with little
pictographs that captured emotions in
cartoon form. In 2011 I was twenty-
seven and I was dating Ian: younger,
diffuse, who unlike me lived in Brook-
lyn, whom I’d picked up, almost inevita-
bly, at an n+1 issue launch party. It was
Ian who showed me how to activate my
phone’s still- optional emoji keyboard,
and who started sending me smiley
faces, rocket ships, cute animals, and
lascivious peaches and eggplants.
That autumn Ian took me to Occupy
Wall Street, in lower Manhattan. That
summer the US government had come
within days of a shutdown, averted only
by a sadistic “sequester” of $1.2 trillion
in budget cuts—but Occupy, which
brought its hand signals and drumming
circles to Zuccotti Park on Septem-
ber 17, stomped on the political class’s
austerity fetish and proclaimed, in the
words of the anthropologist David
Graeber and the artist Georgia Sagri,
“We are the 99%.” It did so not only in
the real space of the park but online, via
#OWS and associated hashtags, where it
intermingled with people-power move-
ments in Tunisia, Egypt, Chile, Tur-
key, and Ivory Coast, not to mention
mini-Occupies from Detroit to An-
chorage. A year earlier, Nicholas Carr
had published The Shallows, his corus-
cating warning of “what the internet is
doing to our brains,” but by 2011 public
discourse had metabolized a bewitch-
ingly naive faith in technology, par-
ticularly smartphones, for democratic
renewal. “With Facebook, Twitter, and
Yfrog [a now forgotten photo-sharing
service] truth travels faster than lies,”
the left-wing journalist Paul Mason
wrote in The Guardian in 2011. The
Deterritorial Support Group, an artist
collective, had a memorable poster that
circulated among live and digital pro-
testers: “Strike! Occupy! Retweet!”
Overthrow, Caleb Crain’s second
novel, returns us to this heady moment
of democracy and technology, though
its scenes at Occupy Wall Street are
concentrated at the start of the book,
and most of the action takes place at
the end of 2011 and the beginning of
2012: after Michael Bloomberg’s po-
lice had cleared the Zuccotti Park en-
campments, and while activists like
the journalist Malcolm Harris and the
photography student Alex Arbuckle

were facing gratuitous prosecutions.
It’s a roomy, even baggy tale of half a
dozen young, idealistic Brooklynites
who cross the East River in search of
a new society, and whose friendships
and principles come under pressure
from more antagonists than just the
district attorney’s office. In the trough
of the Lesser Depression, against
Bloomberg’s police, within a media-
scape in economic freefall, these kids
imagine they can redeem not just them-
selves but the entire planet through the
force of their emotional example, in-
spiring finer feelings and deeper loves
than market logic allows. “We’re going

to save the world by being beautiful
together,” one Brooklyn dreamer pro-
claims as he and his friends head to
Zuccotti Park—and suffice it to say
that things do not work out better for
them than they have for us.
Crain’s first novel was Necessary
Errors (2013), an expansive bildungs-
roman of a gay American in Prague
in 1990–1991. Like that book, posi-
tioned precisely between the fall of
communism and the Velvet Divorce,
Overthrow heightens its emotional
stakes by placing its characters at an
economic and social inflection point,
though Occupy is not exactly the hinge.
Of far greater concern to Crain, as
he plots the loves and dissolutions of
his youthful soft-revolutionaries, are
the technological upheavals they live
through in 2011, and the quiet but per-
manent shifts in human behavior and
corporate surveillance that will befall
them in the decade to come. Occupy
functions as something of a MacGuffin
in Overthrow’s study of what feel like
the last days of a certain kind of human
character. For what is really in question
are the very conditions of human in-
dividuality and feeling that gave birth
to the novel itself in the eighteenth
century—and the very ability to write
and read books like this one—amid a
new social and technological dispensa-
tion that Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age
of Surveillance Capitalism, has called
“glass life.”

Overthrow begins with a scene that,
to a gay reader at least, marks its set-
ting as many years past: one man picks
up another on the street. Matthew, a

grad student working on kingship in
early modern English poetry, is strut-
ting home from the subway in Brook-
lyn when he fixes on Leif, a younger
skateboarder who, uncommonly for an
early twentysomething, does not have
headphones on. “It was always startling
that it turned out to be so easy,” Mat-
thew thinks—even though, by 2011,
the last days of cruising were already
descending. (Grindr, the first of several
location-based apps for finding sex that
relied on the iPhone’s new GPS capabil-
ity, launched in 2009; later, eyeing up
another possibility on the subway, Mat-
thew reflects that “cruising was one of

the analog practices that the internet
was rendering obsolete.”)
Young Leif, wiry and “elfin,” takes
Matthew to the apartment of his friend
Elspeth, where she has begun a tarot
reading, although before you start to
hate these Brooklynites too much, un-
derstand that even they take a skepti-
cal view of it. Elspeth and Leif use the
deck “in a made-up way,” to elicit from
others their “feelings”: a word to which
they assign the highest importance.
Across the river, from a folding table
at Zuccotti Park, they are drumming
up support for their Working Group
for the Refinement of the Perception
of Feelings, an Occupy subcommittee
aiming to reveal government and cor-
porate secrets simply by paying close
attention to them. The name is only
partially tongue in cheek, and the
philosophy is as sincere as it comes.
Revolutionary change is possible, says
Elspeth, “if people were to talk about
their feelings and not be so careful to
make sure that nothing happens on ac-
count of talking about them.”
Matthew, who has “the usual aes-
thetic problems with the left,” looks
askance at it all, but even Leif, the
swami of the working group, has more
modest aims than the protesters who
believe they can remake society from
scratch. It’s Leif who, amid arrests
and chanting one hot night downtown,
“feels” the password of a Homeland
Security contractor; and, hey presto,
the password works when the group
hacks the contractor’s computer and
downloads a cache of files that they sus-
pect proves the government is spying on
them. Overthrowing the state, though,
seems a bit rich to young Leif, born

into climate crisis and maturing into
economic sclerosis; with only “a gen-
eration or two left before chaos,” the
die has already been cast. “Don’t we
save the world?” Elspeth asks him ear-
nestly. (These characters are nothing if
not earnest.) To which Leif responds,
“It might be more a matter of helping
people become able to talk about the
The hack gets them all arrested,
and as the group faces trial—the prin-
cipal defendants get christened “the
Telepathy Four” online and in news-
casts—Overthrow becomes a novel
of a familiar strain: a tale of idealists
brought down to earth. As they stand
firm or sell out, as they reckon with one
another’s little betrayals or assess their
dreams and comeuppances, Crain’s
Brooklynites recall the young revolu-
tionaries of Albert Camus’s Les Justes,
Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist,
and also The Princess Casamassima, an
unusually naturalistic novel by Henry
James that one of Crain’s characters
namechecks. The gang here is of mixed
ages and economic backgrounds, and
also of mixed sexualities, though this
results in no particular tension. Like
Necessary Errors, Overthrow makes a
virtue of gay-straight friendships, even
as it treats Leif and Matthew as the
principal characters.
The largely straight cast allows Crain
to forge Leif and especially the some-
what older Matthew in relief, through
the stories they tell themselves as they
discover their sexualities, come out,
and disclose or conceal their feelings
to their friends. Leif and Matthew
are defined by their relative degrees
of human sensitivity, which in Over-
throw takes on political dimensions
that first seem to approach the para-
normal. One straight character even
proposes that “it’s probably easier for
gays” to detect others’ secrets. Allow
me to admit that I was initially worried
about these vindications of gay sensi-
tivity, and struggled to determine how
seriously I should take Leif’s seemingly
efficacious “feelings.” For the first two
thirds of the book I found myself impa-
tient with Crain’s gentle countenancing
of these Brooklynites’ supposed clair-
voyance, and aghast at the suggestion
that homosexuality and extrasensory
perception might somehow work to-
gether. (You’d be amazed what some
boys spout nowadays: in gay Brooklyn,
astrology is back with a vengeance, and
Grindr profiles are as likely to include
star signs as pronouns.)

It comes as a great Hegelian relief
when Crain finally reveals, at the top
of the third act, that the password
reading was all a joke and that the con-
tractor’s server was rigged to entice a
hack, with no need for telepathy. The
supposed manipulators have been ma-
nipulated, power does not succumb to
fantasy, and these queer and queer-
friendly alleged mind readers are not
superheroes but, well, losers. “I was an
idiot,” Leif acknowledges after discov-
ering that what he credited as extrasen-
sory abilities were, in fact, delusions.
And then—quoting Marvell’s “The
Garden,” which he has illustrated as
a tattoo on his arm—he adds, “I told

Police arresting Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, New York City, November 2011


istopher Anderson/Magnum Photos
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