On or about December 2011, human character changed. That month the pope sent his first message on Twitter, which had just rolled out a substantial redesign whose “Discover” tab would glean your data to push you personalized news and updates. A new service called Snapchat debuted, with which you could string together short videos of your daily activities into “stories” (it became a teen obsession, and was the first social media app to make me feel old). Facebook introduced its “Timeline,” a reverse-chronological biography of your posts, photos, and likes that together told what Mark Zuckerberg called “the story of your life.” In 2011 Apple released the iPhone 4S, with a new voice-operated assistant called Siri—and, more enduringly, it introduced a new keyboard with little pictographs that captured emotions in cartoon form. In 2011 I was twenty-seven and I was dating Ian: younger, diffuse, who unlike me lived in Brooklyn, whom I’d picked up, almost inevitably, at an n+1 issue launch party. It was Ian who showed me how to activate my phone’s still-optional emoji keyboard, and who started sending me smiley faces, rocket ships, cute animals, and lascivious peaches and eggplants.
That autumn Ian took me to Occupy Wall Street, in lower Manhattan. That summer the US government had come within days of a shutdown, averted only by a sadistic “sequester” of $1.2 trillion in budget cuts—but Occupy, which brought its hand signals and drumming circles to Zuccotti Park on September 17, stomped on the political class’s austerity fetish and proclaimed, in the words of the anthropologist David Graeber and the artist Georgia Sagri, “We are the 99%.” It did so not only in the real space of the park but online, via #OWS and associated hashtags, where it intermingled with people-power movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Chile, Turkey, and Ivory Coast, not to mention mini-Occupies from Detroit to Anchorage. A year earlier, Nicholas Carr had published The Shallows, his coruscating warning of “what the internet is doing to our brains,” but by 2011 public discourse had metabolized a bewitchingly naive faith in technology, particularly smartphones, for democratic renewal. “With Facebook, Twitter, and Yfrog [a now forgotten photo-sharing service] truth travels faster than lies,” the left-wing journalist Paul Mason wrote in The Guardian in 2011. The Deterritorial Support Group, an artist collective, had a memorable poster that circulated among live and digital protesters: “Strike! Occupy! Retweet!”
Overthrow, Caleb Crain’s second novel, returns us to this heady moment of democracy and technology, though its scenes at Occupy Wall Street are concentrated at the start of the book, and most of the action takes place at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012: after Michael Bloomberg’s police had cleared the Zuccotti Park encampments, and while activists like the journalist Malcolm Harris and the photography student Alex Arbuckle were facing gratuitous prosecutions. It’s a roomy, even baggy tale of half a dozen young, idealistic Brooklynites who cross the East River in search of a new society, and whose friendships and principles come under pressure from more antagonists than just the district attorney’s office. In the trough of the Lesser Depression, against Bloomberg’s police, within a mediascape in economic freefall, these kids imagine they can redeem not just themselves but the entire planet through the force of their emotional example, inspiring finer feelings and deeper loves than market logic allows. “We’re going to save the world by being beautiful together,” one Brooklyn dreamer proclaims as he and his friends head to Zuccotti Park—and suffice it to say that things do not work out better for them than they have for us.
Crain’s first novel was Necessary Errors (2013), an expansive bildungsroman of a gay American in Prague in 1990–1991. Like that book, positioned precisely between the fall of communism and the Velvet Divorce, Overthrow heightens its emotional stakes by placing its characters at an economic and social inflection point, though Occupy is not exactly the hinge. Of far greater concern to Crain, as he plots the loves and dissolutions of his youthful soft-revolutionaries, are the technological upheavals they live through in 2011, and the quiet but permanent shifts in human behavior and corporate surveillance that will befall them in the decade to come. Occupy functions as something of a MacGuffin in Overthrow’s study of what feel like the last days of a certain kind of human character. For what is really in question are the very conditions of human individuality and feeling that gave birth to the novel itself in the eighteenth century—and the very ability to write and read books like this one—amid a new social and technological dispensation that Shoshana Zuboff, in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, has called “glass life.”
Overthrow begins with a scene that, to a gay reader at least, marks its setting as many years past: one man picks up another on the street. Matthew, a grad student working on kingship in early modern English poetry, is strutting home from the subway in Brooklyn when he fixes on Leif, a younger skateboarder who, uncommonly for an early twentysomething, does not have headphones on. “It was always startling that it turned out to be so easy,” Matthew thinks—even though, by 2011, the last days of cruising were already descending. (Grindr, the first of several location-based apps for finding sex that relied on the iPhone’s new GPS capability, launched in 2009; later, eyeing up another possibility on the subway, Matthew reflects that “cruising was one of the analog practices that the internet was rendering obsolete.”)
Young Leif, wiry and “elfin,” takes Matthew to the apartment of his friend Elspeth, where she has begun a tarot reading, although before you start to hate these Brooklynites too much, understand that even they take a skeptical view of it. Elspeth and Leif use the deck “in a made-up way,” to elicit from others their “feelings”: a word to which they assign the highest importance. Across the river, from a folding table at Zuccotti Park, they are drumming up support for their Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings, an Occupy subcommittee aiming to reveal government and corporate secrets simply by paying close attention to them. The name is only partially tongue in cheek, and the philosophy is as sincere as it comes. Revolutionary change is possible, says Elspeth, “if people were to talk about their feelings and not be so careful to make sure that nothing happens on account of talking about them.”
Matthew, who has “the usual aesthetic problems with the left,” looks askance at it all, but even Leif, the swami of the working group, has more modest aims than the protesters who believe they can remake society from scratch. It’s Leif who, amid arrests and chanting one hot night downtown, “feels” the password of a Homeland Security contractor; and, hey presto, the password works when the group hacks the contractor’s computer and downloads a cache of files that they suspect proves the government is spying on them. Overthrowing the state, though, seems a bit rich to young Leif, born into climate crisis and maturing into economic sclerosis; with only “a generation or two left before chaos,” the die has already been cast. “Don’t we save the world?” Elspeth asks him earnestly. (These characters are nothing if not earnest.) To which Leif responds, “It might be more a matter of helping people become able to talk about the ending.”
The hack gets them all arrested, and as the group faces trial—the principal defendants get christened “the Telepathy Four” online and in newscasts—Overthrow becomes a novel of a familiar strain: a tale of idealists brought down to earth. As they stand firm or sell out, as they reckon with one another’s little betrayals or assess their dreams and comeuppances, Crain’s Brooklynites recall the young revolutionaries of Albert Camus’s Les Justes, Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, and also The Princess Casamassima, an unusually naturalistic novel by Henry James that one of Crain’s characters namechecks. The gang here is of mixed ages and economic backgrounds, and also of mixed sexualities, though this results in no particular tension. Like Necessary Errors, Overthrow makes a virtue of gay-straight friendships, even as it treats Leif and Matthew as the principal characters.
The largely straight cast allows Crain to forge Leif and especially the somewhat older Matthew in relief, through the stories they tell themselves as they discover their sexualities, come out, and disclose or conceal their feelings to their friends. Leif and Matthew are defined by their relative degrees of human sensitivity, which in Overthrow takes on political dimensions that first seem to approach the paranormal. One straight character even proposes that “it’s probably easier for gays” to detect others’ secrets. Allow me to admit that I was initially worried about these vindications of gay sensitivity, and struggled to determine how seriously I should take Leif’s seemingly efficacious “feelings.” For the first two thirds of the book I found myself impatient with Crain’s gentle countenancing of these Brooklynites’ supposed clairvoyance, and aghast at the suggestion that homosexuality and extrasensory perception might somehow work together. (You’d be amazed what some boys spout nowadays: in gay Brooklyn, astrology is back with a vengeance, and Grindr profiles are as likely to include star signs as pronouns.)
It comes as a great Hegelian relief when Crain finally reveals, at the top of the third act, that the password reading was all a joke and that the contractor’s server was rigged to entice a hack, with no need for telepathy. The supposed manipulators have been manipulated, power does not succumb to fantasy, and these queer and queer-friendly alleged mind readers are not superheroes but, well, losers. “I was an idiot,” Leif acknowledges after discovering that what he credited as extrasensory abilities were, in fact, delusions. And then—quoting Marvell’s “The Garden,” which he has illustrated as a tattoo on his arm—he adds, “I told everyone there was another world, ‘far other worlds, and other seas,’ even, and I was wrong, there’s just one, and furthermore, because there’s only one, what they say online is all there is.”
These pathetic Brooklynites have had a dreadful lesson: the materialists were right all along. Politics, and love too, are matters of this world only, metaphysical poetry has no greater application than adorning a bicep, and God really is dead. That a reader might have feared otherwise has to do less with genre—Overthrow has no especial engagement with science fiction or other fantastical modes—than with the sensitivity and softness Crain brings to his characterizations and the weightlessness with which he sketches its New York setting. Matthew begins the novel with “that go-for-broke attitude toward sex that people reach just as they’re about to age out of their years of being attractive,” but there is nothing more explicit in Overthrow than a few Shakespearean dick jokes, and in Matthew especially we see a young man coming to terms with feelings that don’t get much airtime nowadays, of honor and duty, of failure and grace.
Much of it comes to us in a style that isn’t so much recherché as agreeably unfashionable, with frequent third-person Jamesian reflections on what one character means to another in abstract terms. And all of it takes place in a peskily scrubbed New York, a city that defines Overthrow yet refuses to appear. Crain’s characters may “protasize” rather than speculate, they may engage in “susurrus” rather than whisper, but one word they do not know is “Brooklyn,” which does not appear anywhere across four hundred pages almost wholly drained of proper nouns. For Crain, the Brooklyn Bridge is only “the bridge,” in lowercase, identified by “the wire diamonds of the suicide barrier,” while the George Washington Bridge is clangingly glossed as “one of the lime green metal bridges that join the city to the continent.” A gallery of the Frick Collection is “the millionaire’s parlor.” Flatbush Avenue is “a broad nineteenth-century avenue [that] ran to the sea.”
This is a stylistic tic, a bit like Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë glossing an English region as “––––––shire,” and yet to anyone who has the most basic familiarity with New York, Crain’s coyness quickly takes on an unintended comedy. 311 gets the verbose genteelism “the common three-digit phone number for all city services.” The New York Times (for which I could give you a few choice euphemisms) becomes “the city’s largest broadsheet,” though he does name good old n+1, I suppose because its title is lowercase. Even Occupy Wall Street is stripped of its geographical specificity: in this book it’s merely “Occupy.” Crain goes so far as to extend this coyness to dialogue: in one ridiculous passage a lawyer warns his clients not of Rikers Island, but “the island the city ships people to.”
It’s as if Crain is embarrassed that he has written so Brooklyn a novel, whose three most fully drawn characters are all borough-standard failed writers of the sort that everyone I know slept with in our twenties and has tried to avoid in our thirties: (1) a commitment-phobic perpetual grad student well behind on his Ph.D., (2) a poet with “meaningful” tattoos but no serious publication history working as a barista, and (3) a tarot-card reading, heteroflexible magazine fact checker who eats barley and arugula salads. Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn! Write what you know, I guess—but Crain’s extreme negation of proper nouns comes across as a stratagem, not wholly unsuccessful, to remind a younger readership that these Brooklynites were once more than the sum of their activities and phone records. Afloat in a New York stripped of signifiers, they still have space to feel and not merely to do. He’s using style as a wedge, to recall how quickly we allowed form to be eaten alive by characters and messages, and to examine how art, as much as life, has been reduced to materialism.
My impression throughout was that Crain wants to let subject matter dissolve into Jamesian form but knows that the audience for art is well diminished. He has watched, this past decade, as technology has sanded down the human faculties of observation and attention that have fueled art and literature since the eighteenth century, and he is trying to fight a rearguard defense through both subject and manner. For the technological breakthroughs that initially seemed to fuel Occupy and 2011’s other people-power movements turned out to be far more sinister, and this goes beyond the Wired truism that the Internet, once seen as a decentered force for liberation, eventually became a tool of monopolies and spies. As Crain understands, the true turning point in twenty-first-century human character came not with the Web, which may have delivered slight accelerations in media transmission, but with the smartphone, which enacted sea changes in both surveillance and, more relevantly to Overthrow, psychological autonomy.
Like few other novels, and certainly more than you’d expect from its Jamesian flights, Overthrow pays exquisite care to personal technology, with precise descriptions of which characters have what kinds of phones at what moments. Crain is not exactly subtle about this, but it can slip by the reader at first, now that observing that someone has a cell phone has become as banal as noticing that someone is wearing clothes. When they exchange numbers after first meeting, Matthew observes that “Leif’s phone was as dumb as his.” Only two pages later, we have Matthew “[sitting] down to check his email,” rather than looking on a handheld device; just one page after that, we learn that “before leaving, he had looked at a map on the internet” rather than using GPS. Leif texts from a phone that “sometimes required laborious repetition of the number keys to bring up the right letters.”
Elspeth, by contrast, has a smartphone. We learn this at the moment of her boyfriend’s arrest, when she pulls it out to record the police and promptly has it snatched as evidence. Stuck later with “a throwaway candy-bar phone,” she finds herself in a silent apartment with no communication technology, unable to text, unable to call anyone whose number isn’t in directory assistance (to wit, anyone her age). “It was like doing archaeology,” she reflects, “having to make one’s way through the pre–cell phone system.” The other characters also have their phones confiscated, and some are banned from using computers by court order, which leaves them at sea. One has no idea how to access voicemail. Moving to switch on her TV, another panics:
“My TV isn’t secretly a computer?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think it is. How horrible would it be if one were sent back to jail because one hadn’t appreciated all the functionalities of one’s cable service.”
Yet it is precisely their phonelessness, as well as their inability to access the Internet, that preserves the gang’s humanity just a little bit longer than usual. They do things no one does anymore, like show up unannounced at one another’s apartments—an old sitcom staple that would today mark you as a predatory maniac. They speak via landline, in whole pages of dialogue that phone-shy millennials usually save for a group chat. They look in one another’s faces and feel their joys and pains without words. They focus; they listen; they have missed, by a few months at least, the great shift in human character that will turn attention into a commodity and politics into a meme feed.
Elspeth has her smartphone back by 2012, which we discover when it pings with a social media status update, and then when she smacks into a pedestrian while staring at its screen. (“It was the internet’s fault for taking her away from her body,” she thinks.) She realizes that the surveillance files her friends downloaded, an indiscriminate flood of status updates and phone messages, endure in duplicate on her ex-boyfriend’s personal backup server, which “had quietly captured and recorded the selves that they had had in those days, the ones they were never going back to.”
What of this individual Brooklynite endures, after 2011? Not a self as a coherent, maturing entity internal to the human—what less embarrassed people once called a “soul”—but the self as an aggregation of external data, sorted into files and folders, metatagged, searchable, transmissible. Larry Page of Google mused as early as 2001 that “everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable,” and one mild baddie in Overthrow treats this vision as a matter of life and death: “In the future everyone who manages to survive will be a chimera of biology and technology—a compound of human and computer.”
No points for guessing the place of “feelings” in this brave new world. Love looks like a sequence of pink and red heart emojis, friendship is evinced through liking tweets and ’grams; the sex Matthew cherishes as urban experience has become a more disciplined and regimented thing, a matter less of bodies than profiles. But these new technologies have also dulled “feelings” in the Telepathy Four’s sense of the word—as insights that break down secrets and unlock truths. The more idealistic (or shall we say simpler) youngsters of the Occupy working group believe that transparency will lead to justice by itself, but Leif has a finer, more dour grasp of the mediascape: “Information becomes indistinguishable from misinformation. Telling them apart becomes too much work. It doesn’t matter if the secrets get told because almost no one can recognize them.” Forget 2011’s treacly digital faith that “truth travels faster than lies.” He sees that the two in fact travel at the same speed, along a road so overtrafficked that we can’t make out which is which.
Therefore hiding the truth will no longer require censorship, not quite. As the president-to-come figured out before the Occupiers, simply monopolizing airtime and news feeds suffices as a misinformation technique, and what’s really being hacked is not our files but our attention. Overthrow concludes with a revelation of technological and governmental malfeasance that seems to acquit our Brooklynites, but barely troubles the corporate malefactor, who realizes that, after 2011, “it wasn’t at all clear that under the new laws of combat a revelation could still change the ending of a story.” Leif, the mooniest but also the most insightful of the gang, had twigged long previously that focus itself was to be the battleground of his time, and even the battle they might win was part of a doomed war:
Do you think it’s an accident that the social media companies are working so hard to hold everyone’s attention?… And so what we have to do is draw a new line, not between knowing and not knowing but between knowing and being able to say that you know. That’s the future. That’s what order will consist of—not of keeping people in the dark but of keeping them from talking about the light.
He tries to put this down in a “dark poem.” Its narrator, Leif tells Matthew, is “the devil.”
In a 2007 essay for The New Yorker, Crain wrote, “If, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change.” But that long ago, before the launch of the iPhone, when Netflix streaming was only in beta and Facebook was still a glorified directory and photo album, the still principally textual Web gave him hope. “The Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy,” he wrote, though he allowed that that might change “if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.” Is it awful to have nostalgia for thirteen years ago? Now even television has been subsumed into an undifferentiated stream of content, mixed up with politics and sex, a good meal or a walk in the park. All of them, in the decade these Brooklynites are entering and we have just survived, were absorbed into the OLED screen, submitted to recording and metrification; art was made measurable, citizens became avatars.
Reading novels might be one form of “friction,” in Zuboff’s phrase, that allows us to “claim the digital future as a human place,” to foster the attention needed to stanch our political-technological misfortune, and to refuse the reduction of all life to data. Try if you can. When I read I put my phone on the other side of the room, though I did not need clinical research to prove to me, as Adrian F. Ward and three other professors did, that “the mere presence of one’s own smartphone may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance.”* While I think I can still read as closely as before, it’s starting to read that’s gotten harder, and four-hundred-page novels like Overthrow feel as intimidating as War and Peace once did.
And that’s just on my couch. When I leave my apartment, the most basic transactions require the surrender of swaths of data—no cash accepted at Sweetgreen or FedEx, and if you take a selfie at that new inane staircase to nowhere you must cede copyright to Hudson Yards. My phone beams unfathomable quantities of personal data to states, corporations, newspapers, and pornographers, and even when I leave it home, which is never, the towers that have replaced phone booths contain cameras and motion sensors that track my hurried pace. (Crain himself, speaking to Interview last year, notes that while he has hung onto a dumbphone to the bitter end, “I’m reaching the outer limits of being able to keep functioning.”) Any successful resistance to this doleful new technological-authoritarian dispensation looks doubtful at best; it will certainly not pass through tarot cards and seventeenth-century poetry, and the humanist “friction” that Zuboff and, I suspect, Crain would have me muster can offer barely more than temporary personal relief.
Maybe that’s why, the second time I read Overthrow, it reminded me less of Necessary Errors, and less still of James, than of another recent book about doomed, idealistic youth: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s gray-steeped novel of a British boarding school where students learn the humanities before entering a monstrously inhumane adulthood. The clones of Never Let Me Go grow convinced that there’s an escape clause from the technological and governmental nightmare they have been condemned to: if they can express authentic feelings and emotions, as testified by the creation of art, they will get clemency. These twentysomethings, perceptibly human but also less than human, have had their whole stunted lives set out for them by systems beyond their control and must accept the irrelevance of their feelings, with anger but not without friendship. Their authenticity is valid, but it is worthless; their feelings are real, but they are trash.
April 23, 2020
Like No One They’d Ever Seen
The Brilliant Plodder
Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 2017). ↩