Notes on Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow”

In spite of embedded Shakespeare and sundry 19th Century potential footnotes, Caleb Crain’s new novel, “Overthrow” (Viking, August, 2019), may remind readers more of the William Powell and Myrna Loy films that made noir comedies out of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” than to Henry James (who, it might be argued, made drama out of living room comedy). The plot of “Overthrow” might also be said to parody the best of legal action writer John Grisham. Nick Hornby comes to mind, too, his “A Long Way Down.”

“Overthrow” is a protean novel. Ingredients of farce, satire and irony inform contemporary ideas of group-think, economics, media, conspiracy theory, identity and relationships, existential earworms. “The media” performs the role of Keystone Cops, as do the real cops, chasing the story controlled by puppeteers, whose rods and strings get crossed.

As essay, “Overthrow” might be subtitled: “Where we live and what we live for.” And when. The slow, slow art of the novel. Who remembers the Occupy Movement, which may now be recalled as more of a campout than a revolution? If (to) Occupy is the protagonist, who or what is the antagonist? But first, what does Occupy want? To seize? To have sex with?

Is overthrow of governance periodically necessary to maintain a balance of human nature? Has human nature improved over time, or are we no better than any of our ancestors? Or, indeed, were our ancestors better off than us: non-specialized, at one with nature, unpolluted, non-alphabetic. Did our ancestors, as we do, have a picture of themselves? If not, when were these pictures invented? Were the pictures they had of themselves the same pictures others had of them? Overthrow and revolution of the I, the me, subject and object.

Not what does revolution mean, but what does it mean to make revolution? Certainly not to write a novel. But, yes, that, too, as it turns out, particularly a novel about building relationships. Is human nature capable of democracy? Can we “rule ourselves”? The question is important to Michael Hardt in Astra Taylor’s “Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers,” which predates Zuccotti Park Occupy by a few years. And while many thought and still do that the Occupy Movement was a failure, its aims unclear, its results a discredit to the possibility of change, using Hardt’s thinking, it achieved a great step on the road to democracy: Occupy created relationships, corresponded directly to participant lives, illustrated (arguably) collective self-rule, or, at least, to go back and use Hardt’s words, it might have created “the terrain on which the training in democracy can happen – the training and the collective ability to produce social relationships” (149, The New Press, 2009).

And producing social relationships is what “Overthrow” is about, in its most serious reading, the goofy stuff aside. Why write a book no one will read? A poem no one will ever see? A song no one will ever hear? Similarly, why a pick-up? Why a one night stand, as if a relationship requires no more investment than a moment in a head, an hour or two on a couch, or a night in bed but easily forgotten? We aren’t in “City of Night.”

Crain’s sentences come alive, twisted and contorted as we find tree and bush limbs in nature, beautiful. Cultivated, maybe, by some unseen hands, and, at times, readers might think, they are overthrown. You can’t take a comb to them. But we don’t get quite as much of that as we did in “Necessary Errors” (Penguin, 2013). Maybe because “Overthrow” has more dialog. Still, consider this artwork, and note the consistent style that isn’t so much rococo decorative but the way the world actually passes by, in and out of the senses, projection and reflection. The description and detail of observation suggest total control, and objective correlative emotions appear and disappear, as nostalgic fits can sometimes be brought on by certain odors or sounds, but which can only appear at random and not be called up by will, only by suggestion, asides of a sort:

From “Necessary Errors”:

            They passed into the black water of the shade of the bridge. Out of the corner of either eye, Jacob watched the gray, triangular battlements slide up from behind and widen, approaching them on either side, in embrace. Then the bridge itself crossed overhead with its water-blackened stones. While it covered them, hands seemed cupped over their ears; all they could hear was the water’s eager lapping against the heavy walls beside them.

            “Are you fair to him?” Annie asked.

            The black stones lifted off, and the air was free and empty again around them. “It’s not like that.” He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed (391).

From “Overthrow”:

             After looking down, Matthew by reflex looked up, into the beautiful double rigging of the old bridge, which was unusual in that it was both a cable-stayed and a suspension bridge, doubly supported because its builders had meant for it to stand for all time. Cables that spread at an angle crossed cables that fell straight down, interlacing like fingers and creating diamonds that in their sequence of gradually varying dimension seemed to be unfolding as Leif and Matthew rode past them.

            They crossed the water; they descended into downtown (55).

What is overthrown remains out of reach. One of the themes circling through “Overthrow” concerns a kind of deontological question of the value of certain activity or action, of writing for example, of writing a poem or a book. The answer seems to rest in giving way to what it is a person might be fit for:

            This was something he could do, he told himself, as he kept dabbing. This was the sort of task he could safely spend his anger on. Even if he didn’t save the plant and even if the plant didn’t in fact need saving (298).

Substitute planet for plant in that paragraph. Matthew is looking for a way out of his cynicism:

He had written a note about Samuel Daniel, he remembered. But what if he was interested in Daniel and touched by Daniel’s devotion to his vocation only because he himself, in choosing to write literary criticism, was making a mistake like Daniel’s – giving his life to a kind of writing that was about to pass out of the world? To a modern equivalent of Daniel’s poeticized, aestheticized history?

            He picked up the forked paper, to read over the note, but the handwriting wasn’t his.

            “You can read it,” Lief said, appearing at the door.

            “I thought it was mine.”

            “It’s the devil,” Leif said. “It’s one of his voices.”

            “I don’t need to read it” (219).

What can be worse for a writer than to presume his writing won’t be read? The “Overthrow” working group, which Matthew joins but only peripherally, his object being Leif, and not revolution, is apparently under surveillance, yet the authorities miss that the group has maintained a blog. So much for blogging. Crain’s theme of what has meaning, purpose, and value against what is given exposure, watched, and chosen touches on every aspect of the characters’ lives:

            “She wondered if he would give permission. She wondered if he was still willing to fight, regardless of whether he still believed. The new order had revealed to them that poems didn’t have to be published in order to have meaning as poems, but apparently the same order was also going to require the publication of all the prose of one’s life” (377).

In Stalin’s Russia, one had only to think a certain thing to be accused and convicted of a crime. But how did they know what one was thinking?

Hardback copies with dust covers occupy the bookshelves of the conservative library. Conservative in lots of ways, but here in the sense that writers and readers want their books to retain their value, even increase in value over time. We want that piece of capitalistic system to succeed, and to ensure our own success. The economics of the body, the body of the book, its spine, sewn, its jacket, shield against the elements, nomenclature (either or fallacy of identity – “Then he began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’”). Is the hardback economically efficient? Books as collectibles. What does a book become without its dust cover? Its value diminishes significantly as a collectible. Aren’t paperbacks “cooler”? Is the hardback a middle class writer’s heyday? “Occupy” is a novel: this is not a book review. If we are going to spend $27.00 for a hardback book with a cool dust cover, shouldn’t we at least expect not to trip over any typos?

But if we think books expensive, consider the cost of obtaining legal help:

            “I know your parents are already being so generous.”

            “How much was it?”

            “About twenty-eight hundred dollars.”

            For a couple of days’ work. The side of town where Matthew’s parents lived was built on a hill, up which he and Fosco were gradually proceeding, a long, slow hill that, as was always explained to new arrivals in town, served as an objective correlative of the relative financial net worth of the households along it. Blocks ahead, at the top, were mansions with a view of the distant city. Matthew’s parents lived more than halfway down, where the houses were still faced with brick and perfectly respectable but not grand (209).

In other words, middle class, but “more than halfway down,” so maybe lower middle class. In any case, we are talking about a generation of a country’s youth who will not live even that high up the hill, except maybe as they are now, living in the garage or the basement, trying to pay off their student loans on the income of a barista, a fact checker, a literary critic:

            “Let me talk to my parents,” Mathew said. “Thank you for telling me.”

            Was he going to ruin them?

Mathew has already explained “reversion”:

            “There’s an old legal term, ‘reversion,’” Mathew began. “You possess something in reversion if another person has the use of it now but you’ll get it after they die. Someone from another branch of your family may be living in a manor, say, and it will be yours if you manage to outlive them. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the word metaphorically, to mean anything in your future, anything you’re looking forward to, but legally, technically, it’s something you might not live long enough to put your hands on. My thesis is that in the poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the individual is no longer thinking of himself as the subject of a king but as someone who himself has a kingship in reversion” (43).

In other words, as Harold Bloom put it, the “invention of the human,” the creation of the I. Who will pay for that me? The King, in reversion, overthrown:

            Mathew demurred. “Representative democracy works a little differently….”

            “People don’t really want to be king anymore,” said Raleigh. “There aren’t even any lunatics in the asylums who want to be Napoleon anymore.”

            “Maybe they want to be reversionary one-percenters,” suggested Elspeth.

            “One percenters are too boring,” Raleigh objected.

            “They have no charismatic virtues,” said Mathew.

            “They have no charismatic vices,” Raleigh corrected him. “They would be charming if they would only let us see them being greedy and trivial.”

            “I wouldn’t find them charming,” Elspeth said.

            “Yes you would,” Raleigh insisted. “They’d be like the millionaires in screwball comedies” (44).

One thing Raleigh might have wrong in the conversation from “Overthrow” quoted above is the “lunatics in the asylums,” since asylums, like newspapers, have mostly disappeared, beginning with Reagan in California.

“I think another reason the notion of revolution has been discredited is its association with misery, as if revolution would involve giving up all of the pleasures that everyone enjoys” (Hardt, 153).

But the asylum is now the streets. And Hardt and Taylor, in “Examined Life,” are rowing in a boat on Central Park Lake:

“It’s such an idyllic and seemingly anti- or even counterrevolutionary location, one associated with old wealth and the stability of power, the leisure activities of the rich. Maybe, in a strange way, it will help us work through some of these issues like who can think revolution, who wants revolution, where we can think revolution, and who would benefit. Maybe this seemingly strange location can help us cast away what seem to me destructive limitations on how we think about this” (Hardt, 153).

If we think about it at all. And if we do, if we choose to read or maybe even to write about it, kings of our spirals, our unpublished napkins, our unread blogs. And then, frosting on the cake we’ve been let eat and chocolate in the latte we’ve been let drink, to talk to someone about it.

Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” And Caleb Crain would seem to agree. His recent novel, “Necessary Errors,” is full of conversations, and he’s now providing the pictures in an electronic “extra illustrated binding” on his blog. But any resemblance to the Alice books probably stops there. One of the many surprises in “Necessary Errors” is its realistic style, the writing clear and purposeful, full of diligent detail. The sentences are often shaped to fit the action described: “He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed” (391). Jacob, the main character, is rowing a boat under the Charles Bridge in Prague. The writing is realistic too in that the metaphors are not surreal; they also do the work of illustration. It’s as if in the land of Kafka, Kafka had never written a word – but no, precision is a characteristic of Kafka’s style. His writing is so descriptive and precise we don’t realize we’re dreaming. But metaphor to Jacob is not magic; it’s a way of realizing something unfamiliar, of carrying it home in an idea: “They had both loved the book, but Jacob must have loved it because he had recognized in it a story about his own nature (because Jacob had no brother, the idea of a brother was just a metaphor to him)” (309). Or metaphor is for Jacob a tool to sharpen the precision of a description: “She drew from her purse with one hand her cigarettes, lighter, and wallet, her fingers splayed separately open, at all angles like the blades of a Swiss army knife” (298). The hand does not become a Swiss army knife, as it might in a surrealistic description; the image of the knife provides an explanation of the work of the hand. But Jacob is not the narrator.

One settles into “Necessary Errors,” into the writing, as if on a long train ride. It’s a long book, 472 pages, and disciplined throughout, the closest to a first person narrative a third person ever came. The point of view rarely, if ever, is allowed to slip away from the main character Jacob’s indirect voice. The narrator as an independent character might have something to add here or there, but these are rare exceptions. What does Jacob want, and what is in his way of getting it? He wants to be a writer. But first he must come to understand himself, and to do that he must let go of the very moment he values as the sweetest. Only then can he reflect on its significance, and if he’s articulate and has an artistic temperament, he can put the lost experience into pictures and conversations. Is wanting to be a writer the same thing as writing? Wanting to be a writer is a value, something we desire that is not necessarily good for us; writing is a virtue, something that is both good for us and for others, assuming wanting to read is realized in reading. Are these fairly conservative values, these days, reading and writing? Why does Jacob want to be a writer? Where do his values come from? When he realizes some of the guys in Prague are selling themselves, he objects. “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion,” Blake wrote. Jacob wants to be a writer to assert his freedom, to establish an independence from institutions that would buy and sell bodies and souls, minds and lives. That we are free to sell ourselves is the great irony of capitalism, of free enterprise. We enter the prize, and are consumed by it.

The conversations take place in Prague among a group of friends unified by their age and circumstance. Communism is thawing, and the idea of being free and enterprising, of entertaining choices that won’t come again, is still a fresh breeze. The torrents of greed have not yet rushed ashore. It seems a good time to live in the moment, which won’t return. Early in the book, Jacob uses a poem by Emily Dickinson as a pronoun antecedent exercise in his English as a second language class. Dawkins quotes from this same poem in “The God Delusion,” but only the first two lines, an incomplete experiment, and gives it the same mawkish sentiment that at first it seems Jacob is suggesting, that we are lucky to be here, alive, given the odds, and as part of his argument, Dawkins gloats over the google of lives who didn’t make the trip; but how does a non-existent being fit into the equation? Dawdling Dawkins misappropriates Emily and misses the pitch. In any case, back in Prague, if it was the sweetest of times, it was the sourest of times: as it was, is now, and ever shall be. For most people, life is not sweet: not for the coal miner with lung disease, not for the mother of twelve, ten surviving, not for the children of brothels, not for the addicted, the imprisoned, the exploited, the shamed. All lives are not sweet, and the argument that they won’t come again, to those drenched in sourness, might seem something of a blessing. But “Necessary Errors” uses the Dickinson idea in a way Dawkins misses. We move away from any moment, and it is this moving, being in this movement, that carries the writing. Afterlife is irrelevant; the present takes the prize, but not because it won’t come again. One must pay attention now, listen, and observe time passing, and then, recalling the moment in a search for time past, things lost, the artist recreates the moment. “There are unhappy childhoods,” Melinda adds (196).

One of the characteristics of the conversations among the friends in Jacob’s Prague is the distinct way each character talks. They don’t all sound alike; they each have identifying mannerisms, personality, speech. When Carl shows up, we know where he’s from; we don’t need to be told. And when Annie says something, we know it’s her; we don’t need, “Annie said.” If there’s a “gah,” it’s Annie, glasses pushed up onto her head, into her hair. There are times when Carl plays a kind of Buck Mulligan to Jacob’s Stephen Dedalus. The omphalos section might make this explicit (229). And Carl’s presence alleviates the possibility of readers burning out on the pondering Jacob. When Milena gives Jacob the gift of the little plastic Christ statue, he wishes Carl was on hand. Jacob thinks, “An American child would be tempted to zoom the figurine around the room” (458). Or stick it on the dashboard of his ’56 Chevy, next to its earth mother, Carl might comment. Annie seems to be Jacob’s favorite among the women. But Beta helps Jacob out of his element and in need, his independence challenged, like a sister. Milena has children, and we see Jacob interacting with them in several very funny scenes. Kaspar is interesting among the men. The rich boy Vincent fills a need (“The very rich are different from you and me”: Hemingway – see the Toads About page). Melinda grows a bit melodramatic in her beauty and her indecision, but one can imagine her being played by Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. Milo becomes an excellent contrast to Lubos. By the end of the book, the reader has come to know and to recognize Jacob, his group of friends, and the other characters he comes into contact with, infused in the Prague setting.

Jacob’s understanding of what’s happening is often complicated by having to translate what he hears and says. He knows some Czech, but he can’t think in Czech yet. The dialog meant to convey other language speech is not surrounded by quote marks but introduced by a dash, creating an effective style not unlike subtitles in a foreign film. Jacob gives Lubos a clumsy hug, which is believable, but then cries, which is not. Or maybe it is. The reader can believe the young Jacob crying, but not the narrator, whose awareness seems third person omniscient but impassable. But are these crocodile tears (36)? We’ve only just met Lubos, and there’s no reason to trust him, and we’ve not known Jacob that long either. Jokes are often difficult enough to understand in one’s native language. Over time, societal values change, what people want changes, but shame has always been used as a tool to control. Sometimes, shame is so severe, a young person, in particular, or a spouse or a lover, will rebel, and walk away. The price that must be paid to enter so-called respectable society is too great, and anyway, beneath the veneer of respectability one finds crisscrossed plies of bias. Scapegoats are often created to transfer one’s shame onto another. In just this way, the anti-gay sentiment in contemporary Russia is a political ploy, a distraction meant to create a scapegoat. In Prague, Jacob has friends, but where can he place his trust? He must proceed cautiously. But he’s not playing games. He’s serious, and he wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be accepted. He is prone to recognizing differentiations. He insists on his own distinction, an ambition that fuels his quest: “He felt so lucid that he seemed to perceive not only the world but also the biases of his own mind in perceiving it” (463). Do we want a literature of want and take, or a literature of give and forgiveness?

“Necessary Errors” is a masterpiece in the ordinary sense of the word, even if it’s not (maybe because it’s not) the masterpiece we might have been looking for. The novel is divided into three main sections and around 100 smaller sections separated by white space (not numbered). Each of the three main sections begins with a Czech name and a literary reference. To what audience is the work aimed? A common reader probably can’t speak to the whole work without taking up some additional reading, Stendhal, for example, which I probably won’t get around to. The story takes place in 1990 and ’91: there are no cell phones, no laptops, no computers, no Twitter or Facebook, no blogs. One possible audience for the book might include anyone weary of all that stuff and wanting a break to reflect – it’s been a busy couple of decades. One of my favorite sections in the novel is the one in which Jacob finds the clumsy Czech-made clothes washing machine in his apartment. This and a few other sections contain Roddy Doyle-like laugh out loud moments. But the washing machine segment recalls another, in which Jacob sits in a bar with some blue collar workers – alienated, and I’m not sure his [or the narrator’s?] economic analysis makes any sense, today, anyway, but at the time maybe it did. Still, the distance between Jacob and the laborers is so huge. There are any number of writers living in Brooklyn, but I’m guessing few of them earn as much as the Brooklyn plumbers. In any case, that scene, in which Jacob reflects on distinctions, the working class, what one might do to earn a living, and beyond, feels incomplete. One wishes for a Blakean marriage of heaven and hell there, where writers might find work and workers might find time to read. But I’ve left the text at this point, so to come back to it: almost no reference is left hanging, and the laborers are recalled, later, but one omission, possibly, is the loose end of Meredeth’s suicide. Maybe it was impractical to draw together all the threads at the end, but Meredith’s omission at the very end is notable. But there are no ghosts in a Garden. At the time the book takes place, the floor of the last two decades is still clean, and one can’t see the litter of the morning after. If one is to live in the moment, one doesn’t worry about epilogues.

“Necessary Errors” is not a roller coaster ride; I imagined myself reading it on a Coast Starlight running from Vancouver to San Diego, stopping frequently to let a few riders disembark, and to let a few new riders board, conversations along the way, taking a break to join a group playing cards in the dining car, every moment sliding gradually behind, page after page. I took that ride a few times, moments long gone. One should read a book as one takes a long train ride toward a distant destination. You can take breaks, and even get off and walk around the station landing for a spell, but once the train starts moving again, you can’t get off. Something like that. Anyway, “Necessary Errors” was published early August 2013 by Penguin in a solid paperback with thick, rough cut pages and extra shoulder, fold in covers (not sure what the technical term is for that type of cover, but it gives the paperback a more substantial feel), and it’s a substantial novel.