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.