by Caleb Crain, August 28, 2019 10:28 AM
Photo credit: Peter Terzian
Describe your latest book.
My new novel, Overthrow
, starts when a melancholy grad student in his early thirties, a specialist in modern English literature, falls in love with a man in his twenties who skateboards and writes poetry. The poet introduces the grad student to a circle of friends who like to visit the Occupy encampment across the river and are experimenting with trying to read one another's minds. Some in the group suspect that it's easier to know what other people are feeling than it's usually polite to admit. An encounter with the police leaves the group wondering if they're under surveillance, and a few members, seeking to level the playing field, try to break into a computer being used by a contractor for the city. This sets off an avalanche of legal trouble and journalistic attention — what German pundits now refer to as ein shitstorm
— as well as a John Henry–like showdown between humanist and Internet-mediated modes of connection. The novel is a gay love story, a study of what happens to rivalries and bonds when friends are under stress, an investigation into the way utopian impulses are kettled and suppressed, and a meditation on poetic voice in an age when many people have begun to think of themselves as consumers rather than souls. I hope you'll check it out!
When did you know you were a writer?
When I was six, my family moved away from Texas, which I loved. I folded a few pieces of paper and drew on them in felt-tipped markers an illustrated "book" about our journey. The art of losing, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, isn't hard to master.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I'm a fan of Herman Melville, as well as a sometime scholar of his work
, and in tribute to him, I have a little collection of 3-D photographs of whaling from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They can be a little gory, but then, so could Melville.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
One summer, more than two decades ago, I was a fill-in editor for the Guinness Book of World Records, keeping the seat warm between two of the annual's real caretakers. The work mostly consisted of disappointing people, such as the boy who hoped that he had set a world record by farting 137 consecutive farts and enclosed with his letter a piece of paper inscribed with 137 hash marks, counting the farts, as documentation.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Early in his administration, Trump complained, of his former attorney general Jeff Sessions, “If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.’”
"If he would have" isn't the way such sentences traditionally began. In the good old days, a president would have said, “If he had recused himself before the job, I would have said..."
Of course, it's also true that in the good old days, no president would have uttered a sentence anything like this, grammatical or no. Yet it seems a shame that along with the probity of our politicians we must be condemned to lose the use of the pluperfect in the protasis of past counterfactual sentences.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I've been to Melville's grave, as well as his house, and my husband and I once took a day trip to Marcel Proust's childhood home in the small French town Illiers, which is now also known by the fictional name Proust gave it, Combray.
What scares you the most as a writer?
I worry that because television, and to a lesser extent computers and smartphones, have shifted people's habits of mind, it is becoming harder and harder for them to find the calm and focus necessary for reading a serious novel. I worry, too, that social media are making people nervously herd-like in their literary tastes. Art is meant to challenge conventions, not win unanimous five-star ratings.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Once, in conversation with Barbara Epstein, the late editor of The New York Review of Books, I mentioned a book that I hadn't found persuasive and said, "But maybe it's just me."
You must never say that, she corrected me. You become a grown-up, she said, only once you realize that if you try your best to understand and can't, it's the writer's fault. Maybe the writer was muddled; maybe he was trying to snow you. In either case, Epstein declared, your liberation as a reader and thinker starts with the realization that you shouldn't try to convince yourself that what doesn't add up does.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Here's a picture I drew of it. When I'm stuck, I draw just my pencil sharpener. I have lots of drawings of my pencil sharpener.
My Top 7 List of Books About Anarchists, Revolutionaries, and Utopians
For inspiration, while writing Overthrow, I read a number of novels about anarchists, revolutionaries, and utopians. Spoiler alert: almost all idealistic rebels in classic novels worry about keeping secrets and being spied on, fall in love with the sort of people who are against their principles, and have trouble distinguishing self-sabotage from noble-mindedness — which may or may not be traits characteristic of idealists in real life. Here are seven favorites:
Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev
The revolutionaries in Turgenev's last big novel aspire to "go to the people" — to devote their lives to the cause of Russia's peasants. But the hero, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, can't disencumber himself of perceptions and doubts that keep him at a distance from the people, and his sense of compromise deepens when for the sake of cash he has to take a tutoring job in the home of a (shudder) liberal who has (even worse) an attractive, idealistic daughter.
The Princess Casamassima by Henry James
A recurring figure in revolutionary novels — and in revolutionary histories, for that matter — is the aristocrat who wanders into the cause, trailing needed funds and useful glamour, but with an ultimate motive that can't quite be plumbed, even by herself. Does she really aim at radical altruism, or is she a grand personality merely indulging a whim? The princess of James's novel mesmerizes a young revolutionary bookbinder, to his cost.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Conrad's is probably the darkest portrait of the utopian project on this list. From his squalid stationery and soft-core porn shop, Mr. Verloc puppeteers a ring of anarchists, while he is in turn puppeteered by the ambassador of a foreign country, probably Russia. The ambassador orders the bombing of the Greenwich Observatory, which the anarchists think is meant to unleash anarchy, but which in fact is intended to provoke the British government to crack down on political dissent. The only hitch in the plot is whether Verloc can find someone weak-minded enough to be willing to carry the bomb.
Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Sophia Willoughby follows her husband to France after he betrays her. She ends up, however, spellbound by the storytelling of the woman whom her husband had his affair with. It's 1848, and Sophia and the storyteller are soon caught up in sexual as well as political revolution — distributing copies of the Communist Manifesto, womanning the barricades, and sharing a bed.
The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
"You want a safe disguise, do you?" the world's chief anarchist asks one of his acolytes. "You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless; a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?....Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!" The characters in Chesterton's novel are either not quite what they seem or exactly what they seem — or maybe there's no difference? If Conrad's is the darkest portrait, then Chesterton's is the lightest, though perhaps also the least sympathetic to the anarchist spirit (which perhaps makes it the most sympathetic?).
The Bell by Iris Murdoch
A runaway wife arrives at a commune at the same time as a terrifically, unselfconsciously hot 18-year-old boy. Leading the commune, and its participants' attempts to find a "sacramental meaning" in daily life, is a former schoolteacher who hasn't quite recovered from an emotional affair with one of his male students and is soon beside himself with lust for the new boy — who, however, is more interested in the runaway wife. The book gives a startlingly acute analysis of a conflicted gay man's consciousness, as well as a serious but gently ironic examination of what comes of trying to live at an arm's length from the usual venality of the world.
Mating by Norman Rush
After her dissertation research stalls, an American graduate student in nutritional anthropology falls into a series of idle romances in Africa. Then she meets Nelson Denoon, a world-renowned expert in political theory and development economics. "He was so famously sardonic! So heretical! He was so interdisciplinary!" (The story is told in the grad student's unstintingly intelligent voice.) She pursues Denoon to the Kalahari Desert, in the middle of which he has set up a utopia of African women under his paradoxically male and paradoxically white leadership. Will new love destabilize the engineered socialism? Is it likely that the white scientists understand what they're doing?
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Caleb Crain is the author of the novel Overthrow, which has just been published by Viking, as well as the novel Necessary Errors, and the critical study American Sympathy. He has contributed to The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, n+1, The Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn.