“Only connect,” the British novelist E.M. Forster prescribed in 1910. At the time, he wrote those words partly as a straightforward call for more intimate human understanding. But more than a century later, being online can leave us feeling all-too-well-connected: Outrage chases every Twitter misstep, and a casual search for a recipe means you’ll be seeing ads for cookware on your social media feeds for a week. Meanwhile, genuine human contact can increasingly feel elusive. Only connect? If only we could. If only connection didn’t sometimes feel so creepy.
Such concerns are the storm clouds that hover over Caleb Crain’s contemplative, foreboding second novel “Overthrow.” That’s a brash title considering the bookish temperament of the story, which follows a group of bright young political idealists in a story peppered with references to 17th-century British literature. But considering the novel covers life online in the years just before Edward Snowden, Cambridge Analytica and “Russian interference” exploded our pretenses about privacy, the title evokes the very real sense of an old order coming undone.
Before it’s any of that, though, “Overthrow” is a love story. Matthew, a graduate student trudging his way through his dissertation on early modern English poetry, has a chance meeting with Leif, the passive leader of a small group of Occupy-adjacent participants with an interest in intuition and mind-reading and such. There’s a casual, dorm-lounge-ish feel to this pursuit at first — Tarot decks, one-upping banter, a half-serious official name, the Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings. But it’s girded by serious idealism. “It’s a war over perceiving,” Leif explains. “Over what we’re allowed to perceive, still.”
As Leif and Matthew’s romance deepens, so does the Working Group’s prankishly subversive efforts, which include an intuited password and the hacking of a Homeland Security contractor. The subsequent arrest of four of its members is inevitable, but soon becomes a farce of misinterpretations. The quartet is dubbed the Telepathy Four by the media. “Occupy hacks Homeland Security,” reads one headline. “Do you want to overthrow the government?” one journalist asks.
For Leif, a barista and aspiring poet with a line from Andrew Marvell tattooed on his arm, the media circus is at once an emotional drain and proof that the forces that control technology manipulate how it’s used and perceived. “There aren’t borders anywhere anymore,” he tells one of his partners. “This is how we make borders now — with the way people are looking. With the direction they’re looking, and with the looking itself.”
There are a number of familiar ways a novel can address the subjects “Overthrow” raises — surveillance, subversion, hacking, the justice system, government overreach — and Crain studiously avoids all of them. Nobody will confuse the novel for a thriller; on one of their first dates, Leif and Matthew pad through the Morgan Library, pondering the Gilded Age’s excesses. Though jails and the legal bureaucracy claim much of the stage, the mood rarely descends into Kafka-esque paranoia. And while it’s easy to imagine somebody like Tom Wolfe making a sweeping statement out of this material, stuffing his narrative with archetypes, Crain has declined to write the kind of social novel that’s thickened with detail about political movements and the institutions they tussle with.
Rather, Crain opts to tell this story at a more intimate level, with a degree of emotional acuity that recalls Henry James (whose work plays a modest but meaningful role in the story). At its strongest, “Overthrow” captures the depth of disconnection that the online world creates, and the dread and depression it sows. “People get so angry now when they see someone paying more attention to thoughts and feelings than they think thoughts and feelings deserve,” one of the Telepathy Four says. “It’s like there’s a sumptuary law against introspection.”
Crain demonstrated this knack for deep habitation in his characters in his 2013 debut, “Necessary Errors,” a lush tale of 20-somethings in early ’90s Prague as the city transitioned out of Communism. That book is one of the strongest debut novels in recent years, and “Overthrow” occasionally struggles for a similar depth and intensity. The drama of one legal discussion comes solely from a defendant’s desperate need to urinate; the particulars of hacking and its consequences distract from the characterizations that are Crain’s forte.
But Crain’s chief goal is to put a narrative shape around the inchoate sense of dread that we have around technology, the way we sense we’re being manipulated in ways we can’t quite pinpoint. And in that regard, “Overthrow” accomplishes its mission. In the years to come, “no one will feel watched, but everyone will feel, what’s a good word, appreciated,” a dark figure intones toward the novel’s end. “No one will have the feeling that there is a smelly human on the other side of the screen somewhere, totting up merits and demerits.” 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.
Mark Athitakis is a is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By Caleb Crain
Viking. 416 pp. $27