How to hack a novel
+ a little bit about my next book, The Visitors (June 2022)
A Quick Story...
A few years ago I went to a public seminar on hacking, or rather “hacking,” the idea that any system, not just a computer, can be infiltrated and put to alternative use.
The keynote speaker was Spanish activist and artist Simona Levi, and this was exactly how she framed her own “hack” of the Spanish courts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It was Levi and other activists who successfully prosecuted Rodrigo Rato, one of Spain’s foremost bankers—or was, before Levi sent him to prison.
The implosion of the Spanish conglomerate Bankia in 2011 arrived in the wake of years of severe public austerity measures that Levi and other activists had been vigorously protesting. When Rato, then president of Bankia, sought a scandalous 19 billion Euro bailout (the final amount was even higher) from the Spanish government, the request seemed particularly grotesque, so much so that Levi teamed up with other activists to start gathering evidence on what was obviously a case of gross negligence and fraud. They hired a lawyer, crowd-funded the legal fees, and solicited evidence through the open-source platform Xnet Leaks, a spinoff of Levi’s original Xnet group, “a peaceful guerrilla movement” dedicated to digital rights and open-source democracy. They found the incriminating evidence they were looking for. They took Rato to court. And they won.
When I saw her speak, Levi described her strategy as inspired by classic hacks — from old-school phone phreaking to today’s Anonymous and WikiLeaks — but applied to public infrastructure. No one else was prosecuting the obviously fraudulent, reckless, and deeply harmful behavior of the financial elite, so she did it herself; if the legal code no longer works in the public interest, you might as well hack it, repurposing the power of a corrupt system to serve the common good. It’s a powerful idea that feels worth resurrecting in a worsening climate crisis when our democracy is such that a single senator from West Virginia can block an underamibitous energy transformation plan for the largest per-capita emitter of CO2 in the world.
...And a Novel
This framework also seeded the idea for my next novel, THE VISITORS, which is due out in the UK & US from And Other Stories on June 07, 2022, and which you can now officially pre-order here. I promise not to use this Substack for too, too many updates or PR-posts, but COP26 just started, the Green New Deal just died, and THE VISITORS is very much organized around a line of inquiry that seems maybe worth pursuing when governments and supranational organizations fall short: When traditional or status quo modes of political organizing fail, what other forms of expression are available? And which ones will we (must we?) adopt?
In the background of the novel is an eco-hacktivist group trying to incite anarchist revolution in the US by taking out the electrical grid, though they may have also hacked the mind of our lead, a failed textile artist in New York: she’s started hallucinating her destructive impulse, anthropomorphized as a rogue garden gnome that follows her around, talking like Don DeLillo (says my editor) and urging her toward system collapse. My favorite way of describing the novel, however, is simply as a hack: of a nation, of a book, and maybe even of the reader.
You can find the complete and official jacket copy here, but I want to say it’s a good novel for anyone interested in reading or writing about revolution, information theory, the Financial Crisis, the profit-seeking origins of ecological disaster, individual authenticity v. collectivism, highly unreliable narrators, or hacktivism. Reviewers, booksellers, and/or wildly influential internet personas can ask for an advance copy (!) by emailing the good people at And Other Stories. Or me, by responding directly to this email.
And yes, for those who were wondering: Simona Levi is indeed related to Primo Levi. When Glagow comes to its inevitably unsatisfactory close, I guess we can hope that others like her will come out of the woodwork to save us all.
In other news…
I reviewed short-short story master Diane Williams’s How High?--That High for The New York Times.
I’ll be speaking (in English) with Swiss-German novelists Dorothee Elmiger & Annette Hug about THE VISITORS, climate, & related topics at Literaturhaus Zürich on November 22.