Overthrow by Caleb Crain starts out as a bit of a muddle, then becomes fascinating, and then reverts back to being a muddle. That makes it very difficult for me to say whether I enjoyed it or would recommend it.

The novel follows a group of activists who are part of the Occupy protests but have also formed their own group devoted to using ESP to detect government secrets and, perhaps, divulge them. Their motives and methods are part of the early muddiness of the book. Not all of the group’s members perceive their work in the same way, both in terms of whether the psychic angle is real and in terms of how willing they are to break the law. And, in the early chapters, their conversations often have undercurrents that are difficult to follow. It’s like stepping into the middle of something that’s way over my head. Luckily, Crain opens the novel with Matthew, a grad student who gets involved in the group because he’s attracted to Leif, who claims to be able to “read” others and therefore becomes the group’s central figure. Matthew is just outside enough to be a good vehicle for getting to know the group, but he’s also kind of bland and un-curious, which means he doesn’t do much to get answers about what’s going on.

So the early chapters felt a little too complex and the arguments about psychic phenomena and government surveillance were too hard to follow. But the book gets really interesting when the group starts to split up after some of the members are arrested because of illicit files supposedly found on their computers. At this point, the book becomes more about the interpersonal dynamics within the group than about their actual work, and this thread is fascinating. Each group member handles the situation differently, and their attitudes about the work and about each other become more evident. This is good stuff and I was very interested in seeing how the dynamics played out.

Toward the end, however, the book returns to the more elaborate conspiracy-laden plot, and I was back to trying to sort out threads I didn’t care much about. It felt like it was working so hard to make a big statement about technology and the government, but it was too convoluted to break through. But the story of relationships and activism and personal stakes was one worth digging into, and this would have been a great book if that had been the main focus, without all the “clever” distractions.

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5 Responses to Overthrow

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This sounds like an interesting test case for arguments about whether to persist in novels you don’t like at the beginning! If you’d quit, you wouldn’t have gotten to the good stuff in the middle, but in the end was it worth it? Probably yes, overall–and of course how can you be sure if you don’t finish it? :-)

    • Teresa says:

      I still can’t quite decide if it was worth it, given that the end turns away from the elements I most liked. Because I’m off work for the holidays, it didn’t feel like a chore to keep reading, so I did. During a work week, when less time is available, I might resent the weaker sections more.

  2. This would frustrate me, all the muddling and un-muddling.

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