Caleb Crain’s debut novel, “Necessary Errors,” was so good, so stylistically exquisite and morally discerning, that Crain could have been excused for simply running it back for his second effort, using the same Jamesian setup — an American abroad seeks experience and the mature self that comes with it — to similar effect.
And indeed, the first sentence of his new novel, “Overthrow,” sounds an awful lot like the opening of “Necessary Errors.” Here’s how “Overthrow,” set in an unnamed place resembling New York City circa 2011, begins: “It was a few days after the clocks had fallen back for the end of daylight saving time, during the interval when people have adjusted their schedules but not yet their habits.”
And here’s the opening of “Necessary Errors,” set in Prague in 1990: “It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows.” There’s a shared sensibility here: a similar rhythm, a common interest in moments of transition and transformation.
But then the plot of “Overthrow” gets going (a political thriller involving Occupy and government surveillance), its slightly magical world gets fleshed out (a world where people seem to possess the ability to read minds), and we realize just how much of a departure this is.
“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 opens with an English grad student named Matthew. Single, gay, a little sad, Matthew is writing a dissertation on “the metaphysics of kingship” in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poetry. He’s also growing a beard “in the hope that it would make him a little harder to read.” A comically doomed hope in this particular novel.
Walking the streets, Matthew meets and falls for Leif, a delicately beautiful, dizzyingly intelligent poet involved in Occupy. Everything about Leif, from his “moonglow complexion” to his tattoo inspired by Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Garden,” seems otherworldly. Soon, Leif has invited Matthew to meet his friends. “Where are you taking me?” Matthew asks. “Down the rabbit hole,” Leif responds.
Leif and his friends believe, or half-believe, or pretend to believe, that they can read other peoples’ minds — and that we all can, to a greater or lesser degree. (Crain never definitively tells the reader what to believe.) They also, vaguely yet romantically, imagine that putting this power to use will transform the world. Perhaps it will lead to greater governmental and corporate transparency. Perhaps it will simply create solidarity, freeing us to “admit[…] that most of the time people are more aware than they’d like to let on of how other people are feeling” . Matthew finds this all exciting and dangerous and daft. He’s a realist character — what is more realist than a dissertation deadline? — who has wandered into Faery.
Crain, in the tradition of science fiction, has taken an abstract idea and made it literal. What if we actually, truly could read minds? How would that affect our politics? Our friendships? Our economy?
These are all interesting questions, and they generate narrative drama. Leif’s group breaks into the e-mail of a government contractor who has been spying on them. The hackers are arrested, lionized, and demonized by bloggers and the press. All kinds of borders — between government and business, mind-reading and spying — become blurry.
“Overthrow” is good speculative fiction. The overarching conceit works well, even if the legal discussions of mind-reading slow things down. (Too much spitballing of legal defenses; too many peacocking press conferences.)
Like “Necessary Errors,” though, “Overthrow” is legitimately great psychological fiction. Crain excels at describing, with precision and economy, intimacy’s dance of knowledge, ignorance, and pretense: “The best he could do was pretend not to notice that he was meeting halfway what he was being asked to believe.”
It’s also a great gay novel, effortlessly moving between the arch (“It always took Matthew a little longer to become aware of the vanity of straight men”) and the serious (“They were protected here by the only bulwark that homosexuals ever really believe in: a temporary rebellion of pleasure against order.”)
Reading minds is the most ordinary thing we do: You can’t walk down the street without trying to suss out someone else’s thoughts. It’s also our most seemingly supernatural capacity. It is, to channel Henry James, both the stuff of “the real” and the stuff of “the romantic.” In “Overthrow,” Crain realistically and romantically does justice to our most real and romantic of powers.
By Caleb Crain
Penguin Random House, 416 pp. $27
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’’