The New York Review of Books - 24.04.2020

(Axel Boer) #1

14 The New York Review

everyone there was another world, ‘far
other worlds, and other seas,’ even,
and I was wrong, there’s just one, and
furthermore, because there’s only one,
what they say online is all there is.”
These pathetic Brooklynites have
had a dreadful lesson: the materialists
were right all along. Politics, and love
too, are matters of this world only,
metaphysical poetry has no greater
application than adorning a bicep, and
God really is dead. That a reader might
have feared otherwise has to do less
with genre—Overthrow has no espe-
cial engagement with science fiction or
other fantastical modes—than with the
sensitivity and softness Crain brings to
his characterizations and the weight-
lessness with which he sketches its New
York setting. Matthew begins the novel
with “that go-for-broke attitude toward
sex that people reach just as they’re
about to age out of their years of being
attractive,” but there is nothing more
explicit in Overthrow than a few Shake-
spearean dick jokes, and in Matthew
especially we see a young man coming
to terms with feelings that don’t get
much airtime nowadays, of honor and
duty, of failure and grace.
Much of it comes to us in a style that
isn’t so much recherché as agreeably
unfashionable, with frequent third-
person Jamesian reflections on what
one character means to another in ab-
stract terms. And all of it takes place
in a peskily scrubbed New York, a city
that defines Overthrow yet refuses to
appear. Crain’s characters may “pro-
tasize” rather than speculate, they may
engage in “susurrus” rather than whis-
per, but one word they do not know is
“Brooklyn,” which does not appear

anywhere across four hundred pages
almost wholly drained of proper nouns.
For Crain, the Brooklyn Bridge is only
“the bridge,” in lowercase, identified
by “the wire diamonds of the suicide
barrier,” while the George Washington
Bridge is clangingly glossed as “one
of the lime green metal bridges that
join the city to the continent.” A gallery
of the Frick Collection is “the million-
aire’s parlor.” Flatbush Avenue is “a
broad nineteenth-century avenue [that]
ran to the sea.”
This is a stylistic tic, a bit like Jane
Austen or Charlotte Brontë glossing
a n E n g l i s h reg io n a s “ –––––– s h i re,” a nd
yet to anyone who has the most basic
familiarity with New York, Crain’s coy-
ness quickly takes on an unintended
comedy. 311 gets the verbose genteel-
ism “the common three-digit phone
number for all city services.” The New
York Times (for which I could give you
a few choice euphemisms) becomes
“the city’s largest broadsheet,” though
he does name good old n+1, I suppose
because its title is lowercase. Even Oc-
cupy Wall Street is stripped of its geo-
graphical specificity: in this book it’s
merely “Occupy.” Crain goes so far as
to extend this coyness to dialogue: in
one ridiculous passage a lawyer warns
his clients not of Rikers Island, but
“the island the city ships people to.”
It’s as if Crain is embarrassed that he
has written so Brooklyn a novel, whose
three most fully drawn characters are
all borough-standard failed writers of
the sort that everyone I know slept with
in our twenties and has tried to avoid in
our thirties: (1) a commitment- phobic
perpetual grad student well behind
on his Ph.D., (2) a poet with “mean-

ingful” tattoos but no serious publica-
tion history working as a barista, and
(3) a tarot-card reading, heteroflexible
magazine fact checker who eats barley
and arugula salads. Brooklyn, Brook-
lyn, Brooklyn! Write what you know,
I guess—but Crain’s extreme nega-
tion of proper nouns comes across as a
stratagem, not wholly unsuccessful, to
remind a younger readership that these
Brooklynites were once more than the
sum of their activities and phone re-
cords. Afloat in a New York stripped
of signifiers, they still have space to feel
and not merely to do. He’s using style
as a wedge, to recall how quickly we al-
lowed form to be eaten alive by charac-
ters and messages, and to examine how
art, as much as life, has been reduced to

My impression throughout was that
Crain wants to let subject matter dis-
solve into Jamesian form but knows
that the audience for art is well dimin-
ished. He has watched, this past de-
cade, as technology has sanded down
the human faculties of observation and
attention that have fueled art and liter-
ature since the eighteenth century, and
he is trying to fight a rearguard defense
through both subject and manner. For
the technological breakthroughs that
initially seemed to fuel Occupy and
2011’s other people-power movements
turned out to be far more sinister, and
this goes beyond the Wired truism that
the Internet, once seen as a decentered
force for liberation, eventually became
a tool of monopolies and spies. As
Crain understands, the true turning
point in twenty-first-century human
character came not with the Web,
which may have delivered slight ac-
celerations in media transmission, but
with the smartphone, which enacted
sea changes in both surveillance and,
more relevantly to Overthrow, psycho-
logical autonomy.
Like few other novels, and certainly
more than you’d expect from its James-
ian flights, Overthrow pays exquisite
care to personal technology, with pre-
cise descriptions of which characters
have what kinds of phones at what mo-
ments. Crain is not exactly subtle about
this, but it can slip by the reader at first,
now that observing that someone has a
cell phone has become as banal as no-
ticing that someone is wearing clothes.
When they exchange numbers after first
meeting, Matthew observes that “Leif’s
phone was as dumb as his.” Only two
pages later, we have Matthew “[sitting]
down to check his email,” rather than
looking on a handheld device; just one
page after that, we learn that “before
leaving, he had looked at a map on the
internet” rather than using GPS. Leif
texts from a phone that “sometimes re-
quired laborious repetition of the num-
ber keys to bring up the right letters.”
Elspeth, by contrast, has a smart-
phone. We learn this at the moment of
her boyfriend’s arrest, when she pulls it
out to record the police and promptly
has it snatched as evidence. Stuck later
with “a throwaway candy-bar phone,”
she finds herself in a silent apartment
with no communication technology,
unable to text, unable to call anyone
whose number isn’t in directory assis-
tance (to wit, anyone her age). “It was
like doing archaeology,” she reflects,
“having to make one’s way through
the pre–cell phone system.” The other
characters also have their phones con-

fiscated, and some are banned from
using computers by court order, which
leaves them at sea. One has no idea how
to access voicemail. Moving to switch
on her TV, another panics:

“My TV isn’t secretly a computer?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think it is. How horrible
would it be if one were sent back
to jail because one hadn’t appreci-
ated all the functionalities of one’s
cable service.”

Yet it is precisely their phonelessness,
as well as their inability to access the
Internet, that preserves the gang’s hu-
manity just a little bit longer than usual.
They do things no one does anymore,
like show up unannounced at one an-
other’s apartments—an old sitcom
staple that would today mark you as a
predatory maniac. They speak via land-
line, in whole pages of dialogue that
phone-shy millennials usually save for
a group chat. They look in one anoth-
er’s faces and feel their joys and pains
without words. They focus; they listen;
they have missed, by a few months at
least, the great shift in human charac-
ter that will turn attention into a com-
modity and politics into a meme feed.
Elspeth has her smartphone back
by 2012, which we discover when it
pings with a social media status up-
date, and then when she smacks into a
pedestrian while staring at its screen.
(“It was the internet’s fault for taking
her away from her body,” she thinks.)
She realizes that the surveillance files
her friends downloaded, an indiscrim-
inate flood of status updates and phone
messages, endure in duplicate on her
ex-boyfriend’s personal backup server,
which “had quietly captured and re-
corded the selves that they had had in
those days, the ones they were never
going back to.”
What of this individual Brooklynite
endures, after 2011? Not a self as a co-
herent, maturing entity internal to the
human—what less embarrassed people
once called a “soul”—but the self as
an aggregation of external data, sorted
into files and folders, metatagged,
searchable, transmissible. Larry Page
of Google mused as early as 2001 that
“everything you’ve ever heard or seen
or experienced will become searchable.
Your whole life will be searchable,”
and one mild baddie in Overthrow
treats this vision as a matter of life and
death: “In the future everyone who
manages to survive will be a chimera of
biology and technology—a compound
of human and computer.”
No points for guessing the place of
“feelings” in this brave new world.
Love looks like a sequence of pink and
red heart emojis, friendship is evinced
through liking tweets and ’grams; the
sex Matthew cherishes as urban experi-
ence has become a more disciplined and
regimented thing, a matter less of bod-
ies than profiles. But these new technol-
ogies have also dulled “feelings” in the
Telepathy Four’s sense of the word—as
insights that break down secrets and
unlock truths. The more idealistic (or
shall we say simpler) youngsters of the
Occupy working group believe that
transparency will lead to justice by it-
self, but Leif has a finer, more dour
grasp of the media scape: “Information
becomes indistinguishable from misin-
formation. Telling them apart becomes
too much work. It doesn’t matter if the
secrets get told because almost no one



Deadline: 15 June, 2020



The 2020 Holberg Prize is
awarded to British-Canadian
scholar Griselda Pollock for
her groundbreaking work
in feminist art history and
cultural studies.

To nominate, go to

The Holberg Prize is awarded annually to a scholar for outstanding
research in the humanities, social sciences, law or theology. The
Prize is worth NOK 6,000,000 (approx. USD 670,000).

Scholars holding a position at universities, academies or other
research institutions are entitled to nominate candidates.

Photo: University of Leeds
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