Telepathic hackers: Caleb Crain's 'Overthrow'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday October 15, 2019
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"Overthrow" author Caleb Crain. Photo: Peter Terzian
"Overthrow" author Caleb Crain. Photo: Peter Terzian

Even though the post-publisher-purchase gestation period of most books, LGBTQ fiction not excepted, is longer than the elephant's 22 months, many seem to be landing at moments when they're topical, which may say more about our moment than about the books. The ruckus surrounding the publications of Edward Snowden's "Permanent Record," about which the words "sell out" are best avoided, and the fevered reception of Jia Tolentino's "Trick Mirror" conveniently coincide with the release of Caleb Crain's second novel, "Overthrow" (Viking). It would be easy to miss the core seriousness of Crain's novel — internet "security" and its warriors — in the brilliant, relentless comedy of its execution. From its very title, which I hope was Crain's, "Overthrow" is comedy of the highest order.

The story, which can be hard to track, if at no loss of readability, is about the brief rise and precipitous fall of a group of Occupy-era government-server hackers who call themselves the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings (hereinafter "Group"), making "security theater" through telepathy, most of which owes to the intuitive powers of young, handsome, gay Leif Saunderson. Post-arrest, the internet of friends spawns a Committee to Save the Telepathy Four.

The plot, which feeds on the preposterous and sometimes seems encrypted, is dispatched to the far edges of the novel, where it functions less as support pillars than the springs of a trampoline, tossing both the characters and the reader back into it the middle of it when the writing comes neck-snappingly close to sabotaging itself.

Crain is a true craftsman, but the writing mostly doesn't care what you think of it and shows off shamelessly. Exotic vocabulary and, I suspect, more than a couple neologisms make "synecdoche" a pedestrian word (though, uncharacteristically, Crain rushes to define it the minute it appears). Quotable lines, and lines meant to be quoted that, Proust-like, enshrine Crain's thoughts about his characters and pretty much everything, abound, so convincingly you don't pause to reflect any more than you do to look up unusual words.

There's this by Raleigh, a straight but handsome character on whom I developed an undeniable crush, about his surprise affair with the class-superior Julia: "That was how it happened: gradually and then all at once."

There are groaners, e.g., "'I'll miss you too,' he lied," to Raleigh's new ex, Elspeth. Even so, the unflagging originality of the writing proves sustaining. Simple, elegant sentences refresh the page: "Rain seemed to make the world gentle and indirect." "His phone trembled."

Don't be thrown by the novel's opening scene, the now nearly de rigueur account of thwarted gay cruising. Matthew, later to become a memorable cruisee despite what a past flame calls his "seven-day-a-week" relationship with Leif, has the cartoonish qualities of his fellow protagonists, yet you fall for him, and eventually, for all of them. They step off the page, and in no time you want to catch them as they do.

The book is slyly nostalgic about writing of the old-fashioned kind. A kind of subplot weaves in Henry James' "The Princess Casamassima." A character is nicknamed Hyacinth, after James' protagonist. Sans Tarot deck, Leif is a poet whose verbal flights might also relate to steroids for a persistent cough. He can riff on the poetry of Andrew Marvell in the presence of the pestilent press.

This yields Raleigh's sub voce observation about "how it was that Leif always managed to put himself in the wrong with every group that he was a part of and yet remained liked by it. It was his version of negative capability, maybe," that suspended "maybe" rhythmically perfect.

The 31-year-old Matthew, a graduate student in English and arguably the principal narrator among a gang of unreliables, is the stereotype of the dissertation procrastinator, but then his topic is poetic kingship in 16th-century literature, so reader sympathy is all but reflexive. Gay men of the living variety will understand every twist in Matthew and Leif's push-and-pull relationship or partnership or whatever.

Still, traditional forms of writing all collide with the monumentality of the web. "The internet was still a force that hadn't been understood," Crain teases. "The only thing one knew for certain about it was that it was always on the side that didn't lose."

Elspeth, another aspiring writer and an influencer before her time, is, like Leif, an all-but-indescribable beauty Raleigh regrets dumping when in her presence. She is Group mother with a formidable mother of her own. More than perhaps any other character, she develops, even though on the surface it seems she just melts down while on bail. The lawyers are at once parodies and vividly etched individuals.

The novel is a prose millennial "Howl," capturing its ethos with soul. If you insist on living in our time, "Overthrow" could only help.