The place where dispossession, whether by choice or by circumstance, meets underground culture is having its moment in the literary sun right now. Jerry Stahl's Happy Mutant Baby Pills and Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens both incorporate the Occupy movement into their narratives, the former as part of a politically charged cavalcade of idealists and realists at odds, the latter as the latest in a series of distinctively American revolutionary movements. One of the plotlines in Jonathan Miles's novel Want Not centers around a young couple squatting on the Lower East Side in 2007, and their struggles to balance idealism with their own fraught pasts. The economic anxieties that have been in high gear since 2008 help explain why these concerns remain relentlessly current for many novelists. Channeling that tension into fiction can be revelatory, educational, or cathartic. It's not surprising, then, that the unrest that serves as the backdrop for Cari Luna's The Revolution of Every Day feels up-to-the-minute, even though Luna's novel is set in 1994 and 1995. Specifically, it's set on the Lower East Side in the early years of Rudy Giuliani's administration, when squatting was unorthodox but not unheard of. Luna's novel of idealists grappling with the institutionalized hostility of a city serves as both a gripping narrative and a moving exploration of the limits of ideology.
Early on, Luna notes that Thirteen House, besieged home of many of her characters, is "a squat, not a commune." When discussing ways to rally support for Thirteen House, Amelia, the squat's youngest member, says, "We should be pushing the homesteader angle more." Steve and Anne, the married couple at the center of Thirteen House, have opted for that way of life out of staunch political convictions; Gerrit, Amelia's more-or-less boyfriend, brings with him memories of clashing with police during his youth in Amsterdam. From the outset, then, there are two distinct strains of a similar ideology—one philosophical and the other more confrontational—present in Thirteen House, each with its own revolutionary history. As the novel opens, the existence of the squat has become precarious: The conflation of political opposition and real estate encroachment threatens Thirteen House's existence. It's one of the novel's bitterest ironies that other squats at the fringes of the narrative, whose residents are more self-centered or drawn towards addictions, seem far less threatened by the convergence of political pressures and the real estate market.
The growing tensions between Thirteen House's four inhabitants puts even more than their physical space at risk. Steve and Anne's marriage has worn thin after a series of miscarriages: Anne is drawn to her sister's more settled lifestyle in Brooklyn, while Steve finds his own desires wandering. When the novel opens, he has already had an affair with Amelia, who is now pregnant. Gerrit, meanwhile, bears deep scars from his mother's use of Thalidomide, and is haunted by memories from his time across the ocean. Luna's story line is not confined to these two uneasy couples; her narrative encompasses the squat next door, Cat House, whose namesake is a longtime downtown resident. "She fronted a punk band called Tonsillectomy," Luna writes, describing Cat, "and thought maybe she'd be a rock star, but she just ended up another name on the very long list of people Lou Reed was rude to." Though the fates of Cat House and Thirteen House are interconnected, Cat's actions largely serve as a counterpoint to the interpersonal dramas next door. She's an acute observer of the passage of time in the city, flashing back to her childhood as she walks to her current greenmarket job, musing on friends lost and departed.
The Revolution of Every Day's characters are initially drawn with broad strokes, with memorable details slowly emerging over the course of the novel. Between this approach and the socially charged narrative, the influence of John Steinbeck looms large over The Revolution of Every Day—the novel aims to both succeed as a work of fiction and to provide a window into an aspect of society with which its readers might not be familiar. And, like Steinbeck, Luna has a penchant for dizzying reversals. By novel's end, Steve will prove to be a more complex character than his philandering might indicate, and Gerrit will turn out to be much more flawed, a man more in love with the idea of being a tortured martyr than in moving forward. There are no easy heroes here—only flawed figures whose ideals may not be enough to carry them through the conflicts that besiege them.
A deep sadness suffuses the novel. Some of that comes from the passing of a way of life, from the upending of squats to the death of an old friend of Cat's. But it's also about the limitations of ideologies. Steve finds himself haunted by the education he abandoned and the memory of his working-class family; Anne discovers that her lifestyle may cost her her job. The novel's complex view of idealism isn't limited to the squatters at its core. At one point, Amelia observes the city attorney tasked with evicting them in a legal hearing: "Why would you take a government job instead of working in a fancy law firm, unless you wanted to help people? She must have meant well, Amelia thinks. And now here it is her job to do Giuliani's dirty work. Amelia almost feels sorry for her."
Luna avoid the easy romanticizing of homesteading in all of its forms, instead focusing on the exhausting parade of small actions required to keep a quasi-legal residence inhabitable, from scavenging materials for structural repairs to seeking out sympathetic lawyers to aid in an unending battle with the city. Luna presents this as an ongoing struggle, a process that makes its characters almost heroic, even as the constant questioning of their life leaves them conflicted with each other, the city around them, and the conventions of society. Anne reminds herself at one point, when reading a mystery novel, that "it's okay to read things just because they're fun." And it's the tension inherent in a revolutionary way of life that makes this novel ultimately compelling.
"Shouldn't people know they aren't just a bunch of punks crashed out in crumbling buildings? That they aren't freeloaders out to get something for nothing or whatever it is people are thinking about them? Shouldn't people know how hard they work?" Amelia thinks when looking over a flyer designed to rally the community. Luna seeks to answer those questions with this novel. Between the rhapsodic descriptions of the Lower East Side and the still-gripping account of economic anxieties and fading idealism, there's plenty to admire here. The novel provides no clear answers, only haunting memories and the knowledge that the cycles it describes are far from over. In its description of quotidian moments of revolution and the haunting questions that they provoke, Luna has created a sympathetic portrait of those whose ethics leave them out of sync with the greater society.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Hazlitt, the Paris Review Daily, Tin House, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Collagist, and elsewhere.