Lovers in a dan­ger­ous time

The Prince George Citizen - - A&e - Mark ATHITAKIS Spe­cial To The Washington Post

“Only con­nect,” the Bri­tish nov­el­ist E.M. Forster pre­scribed in 1910. At the time, he wrote those words partly as a straight­for­ward call for more in­ti­mate hu­man un­der­stand­ing. But more than a cen­tury later, be­ing on­line can leave us feel­ing all-too-well-con­nected: out­rage chases ev­ery Twit­ter mis­step, and a ca­sual search for a recipe means you’ll be see­ing ads for cook­ware on your so­cial me­dia feeds for a week. Mean­while, gen­uine hu­man con­tact can in­creas­ingly feel elu­sive. Only con­nect? If only we could. If only con­nec­tion didn’t some­times feel so creepy.

Such con­cerns are the storm clouds that hover over Caleb Crain’s con­tem­pla­tive, fore­bod­ing sec­ond novel Over­throw. That’s a brash ti­tle con­sid­er­ing the book­ish tem­per­a­ment of the story, which fol­lows a group of bright young po­lit­i­cal ide­al­ists in a story pep­pered with ref­er­ences to 17th-cen­tury Bri­tish lit­er­a­ture. But con­sid­er­ing the novel cov­ers life on­line in the years just be­fore Ed­ward Snow­den, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence ex­ploded our pre­tenses about pri­vacy, the ti­tle evokes the very real sense of an old or­der com­ing undone.

Be­fore it’s any of that, though, Over­throw is a love story. Matthew, a grad­u­ate stu­dent trudg­ing his way through his dis­ser­ta­tion on early modern English po­etry, has a chance meet­ing with Leif, the pas­sive leader of a small group of Oc­cupy-ad­ja­cent par­tic­i­pants with an in­ter­est in in­tu­ition and mind-read­ing and such. There’s a ca­sual, dorm-lounge-ish feel to this pur­suit at first – Tarot decks, one-up­ping ban­ter, a half-se­ri­ous of­fi­cial name, the Work­ing Group for the Re­fine­ment of the Per­cep­tion of Feel­ings. But it’s girded by se­ri­ous ide­al­ism. “It’s a war over per­ceiv­ing,” Leif ex­plains. “Over what we’re al­lowed to per­ceive, still.”

As Leif and Matthew’s ro­mance deep­ens, so does the Work­ing Group’s prank­ishly sub­ver­sive ef­forts, which in­clude an in­tu­ited pass­word and the hacking of a Home­land Se­cu­rity con­trac­tor. The sub­se­quent ar­rest of four of its mem­bers is in­evitable, but soon be­comes a farce of mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions. The quar­tet is dubbed the Telepa­thy Four by the me­dia.

“Oc­cupy hacks Home­land Se­cu­rity,” reads one head­line. “Do you want to over­throw the gov­ern­ment?” one jour­nal­ist asks.

For Leif, a barista and as­pir­ing poet with a line from An­drew Marvell tat­tooed on his arm, the me­dia cir­cus is at once an emo­tional drain and proof that the forces that con­trol tech­nol­ogy ma­nip­u­late how it’s used and per­ceived.

There are a num­ber of fa­mil­iar ways a novel can ad­dress the sub­jects Over­throw raises – surveil­lance, sub­ver­sion, hacking, the jus­tice sys­tem, gov­ern­ment over­reach – and Crain stu­diously avoids all of them. No­body will con­fuse the novel for a thriller; on one of their first dates, Leif and Matthew pad through the Mor­gan Li­brary, pon­der­ing the Gilded Age’s ex­cesses. Though jails and the le­gal bu­reau­cracy claim much of the stage, the mood rarely de­scends into Kafka-es­que para­noia. And while it’s easy to imag­ine some­body like Tom Wolfe mak­ing a sweep­ing state­ment out of this ma­te­rial, stuff­ing his nar­ra­tive with archetypes, Crain has de­clined to write the kind of so­cial novel that’s thick­ened with de­tail about po­lit­i­cal move­ments and the in­sti­tu­tions they tus­sle with.

Rather, Crain opts to tell this story at a more in­ti­mate level, with a de­gree of emo­tional acu­ity that re­calls Henry James (whose work plays a mod­est but mean­ing­ful role in the story). At its strong­est, Over­throw cap­tures the depth of dis­con­nec­tion that the on­line world cre­ates, and the dread and de­pres­sion it sows. “Peo­ple get so an­gry now when they see some­one pay­ing more at­ten­tion to thoughts and feel­ings than they think thoughts and feel­ings de­serve,” one of the Telepa­thy Four says. “It’s like there’s a sump­tu­ary law against in­tro­spec­tion.”

Crain demon­strated this knack for deep habi­ta­tion in his char­ac­ters in his 2013 de­but, Nec­es­sary Er­rors, a lush tale of 20-some­things in early ‘90s Prague as the city tran­si­tioned out of Com­mu­nism. That book is one of the strong­est de­but nov­els in re­cent years, and Over­throw oc­ca­sion­ally strug­gles for a sim­i­lar depth and in­ten­sity. The drama of one le­gal dis­cus­sion comes solely from a de­fen­dant’s des­per­ate need to uri­nate; the par­tic­u­lars of hacking and its con­se­quences dis­tract from the char­ac­ter­i­za­tions that are Crain’s forte.

But Crain’s chief goal is to put a nar­ra­tive shape around the in­choate sense of dread that we have around tech­nol­ogy, the way we sense we’re be­ing ma­nip­u­lated in ways we can’t quite pin­point. And in that re­gard, Over­throw ac­com­plishes its mis­sion. In the years to come, “no one will feel watched, but ev­ery­one will feel, what’s a good word, ap­pre­ci­ated,” a dark fig­ure in­tones to­ward the novel’s end. “No one will have the feel­ing that there is a smelly hu­man on the other side of the screen some­where, tot­ting up mer­its and de­mer­its.” Swap­ping hu­man con­nec­tion for an al­go­rithm of con­ve­nience is a lousy bar­gain, Crain ar­gues. His novel is a sen­si­tive, provoca­tive plea to rec­og­nize what gets lost in the ex­change.


Caleb Crain un­packs modern fears in his new book Over­throw.

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