Overthrow is legitimately great psychological fiction. Crain excels at describing, with precision and economy, intimacy’s dance of knowledge, ignorance, and pretense.
A novel about the fate of candor, good will, and the utopian spirit in a world where technology and surveillance are weaponizing human relationships
One autumn night, as a grad student named Matthew is walking home from the subway, a handsome skateboarder catches his eye. Leif, a poet as well as a skater, invites Matthew to take part in an experiment with tarot cards. It’s easier to know what’s in other people’s minds than most people realize, Leif and his friends claim. Do they believe in telepathy? Can they actually do it? Instead of writing his dissertation, Matthew soon finds himself falling for Leif and entangled with his friends, who are as idealistic as the Occupy encampment they like to visit.
A 19th-century social novel for the 21st-century surveillance state. Frequently alluding to Henry James’s “The Princess Casamassima,” another story of young radicals, Crain subjects his characters to quandaries that test their precariously entwined identities. The novel almost dares readers to object to its inwardness — “It’s like there’s a new sumptuary law against introspection,” one of the four complains — but its tender, psychologically precise prose feels like a bulwark against the exposure it takes for a subject.
Necessary Errors was rigorously naturalistic and finely polished. Overthrow is playfully fantastical—Crain frequently invokes Shakespearean romance—and, if not plot-driven, at least plot-friendly. Henry James is still the tutelary spirit; but it’s the James of The Princess Casamassima (alluded to on several occasions) and The Sacred Fount—the James interested in radical politics and unashamed of messing around with the supernatural. Overthrow, in other words, does what a second novel should do: It risks something.
The novel is virtuosic in mining beauty and pathos from the texture of daily life; reading Crain’s prose can feel like seeing a world made hyper-real, crisper and more intense, as through some phenomenological Instagram filter.
No one can deny that Henry James is still a significant force in fiction. . . . Caleb Crain’s Jamesian story of New York in late 2011, the autumn of Occupy and its aftermath, is among the most cunning, most subtle examples I know. The influence is fully conscious, fully diffused, and frequently witty. . . . It’s a novel that keeps faith in even the unlikeliest candidates for where redemption might next come.
It’s a Philip K. Dick plot as experienced by Henry James characters.
Crain is a true craftsman. . . . The unflagging originality of the writing proves sustaining.
What is really in question are the very conditions of human individuality and feeling that gave birth to the novel itself.
Against the plot concerning our main characters lies a much more sinister counter-plot; against each attempt at activist hacking, a reassertion of state-mandated counter-hacking. The central paradox of reading Crain’s novel is that even as we learn more, these revelations often return us to just how little it is we know at all. . . . It is, at heart, a novel that repeatedly asks: What makes a good reader?
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.
A carefully unsentimental book.
In a time when it’s said that social media algorithms can predict your decisions more accurately than your intimates, Caleb Crain might provide the sort of narrative we need.
What a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book Caleb Crain has written! It is part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities against the backdrop of the Occupy movement and the growing surveillance power of Leviathan. It’s a novel to be read now and reread years from now—a tour de force.
—Keith Gessen, author of A Terrible Country
Caleb Crain’s fiction is a complete pleasure: emotionally generous, stylish, and expansive, laced with the sly, bright humor of quiet observation. Through the prism of the “Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings”—an idealistic collective of young friends, with shifting personal connections, perspectives, and commitments—Overthrow illuminates contemporary crises of politics and technology, helping make sense of pervasive surveillance and political optimism by turning the abstract intimate. A sturdy reminder of all the ways literature, too, can serve as a form of political optimism.
—Anna Wiener, author of Uncanny Valley
This astounding, moving novel brought back memories of Occupy Wall Street while transporting me to a parallel universe, one where emotional empathy and technological surveillance become mysteriously entangled. A small group of friends, who aim to cultivate a heightened state of sensitivity, must navigate a perilous legal system and face down sinister corporate interests, without betraying one another or their beliefs. Both poetic and gripping, realistic and otherworldly, Overthow engages heady themes—the limits of idealism, the nature of state power—in an incredibly gripping narrative that never loses heart or hope.
—Astra Taylor, director of What Is Democracy? and Examined Life
There’s an excerpt in the August 2019 issue of Harper’s magazine.
- An interview by Sach Dev, for Bookforum
- An interview by Emily Homonoff, for the Reading with Robin podcast
- An interview by Gil Roth, in episode 334 of the Virtual Memories Show podcast
- “Has Caleb Crain Written the First Occupy Wall Street Novel?” by Christopher Bollen, Interview Magazine, 26 August 2019
- An interview by Amy Guth, of Chicago’s WGN Radio, mostly about unions but also about Overthrow
- An interview by James McDonald Feder, for Kirkus
- An interview with myself, at the website of Powell’s bookstore of Portland, Oregon
Radio and TV
- On CUNY-TV’s Twilight Talks, curator and writer Kevin Moore interviews me, in an episode produced by Wilson Reyes
- On WAMC’s “The Roundtable,” James Conrad, of the Golden Notebook bookstore in Woodstock, NY, named Overthrow as one of his book picks
- On New York City’s NBC station, Bill Goldstein discussed Overthrow on “Bill’s Books”
Social media sightings:
- Tuesday, August 27, 7:30pm: Books Are Magic, 225 Smith St., Brooklyn.
With readings by Christine Smallwood, Jana Prikryl, Daniel Smith, and Leon Neyfakh.
Telephone: (718) 246-2665.
- Thursday, September 5, 7:30pm: The Strand, 828 Broadway (at 12th St.), Manhattan.
In conversation with Kate Bolick.
Admission with the purchase of a signed copy of Overthrow or a Strand gift card.
Telephone: (212) 473-1452.
- Sunday, September 8, 4pm: McNally-Jackson, South Street Seaport, 4 Fulton Street (a new location for the store!), Manhattan.
In conversation with Astra Taylor.
- Wednesday, September 18, 6pm: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco.
In conversation with Anna Wiener.
Telephone: (415) 835-1020.
- Saturday, September 21, 4pm: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California.
In conversation with Elaine Blair.
Telephone: (310) 659-3110.