THE RESIDENTS of Thirteen House don't pee in buckets. They don't sleep in sleeping bags. And they're definitely not drug addicts.
"Call them squatters, fine, but homesteading's what this is really about," explains a character in Cari Luna's great new novel. Set on the Lower East Side in the mid-1990s, The Revolution of Every Day centers on Thirteen House, a city-owned property that has functioned as a squat for more than a decade.
As the novel opens, the residents of Thirteen House are rebuilding a staircase. It's a pointed intro: These people, we're meant to understand, haven't merely taken up residence in some old, crumbling building. They've cared for it, done the hard work, put in hours of labor to maintain the home and community they've built.
The Revolution of Every Day focuses on a few residents of Thirteen House, friends and partners and adulterous lovers; their personal lives unfold against efforts by the city, after years of neglect, to reclaim ownership of Thirteen House and turn the land over for development.
The novel's central character is a young woman named Amelia. She came to the house when she was 16 and a junkie, living on the streets; she was taken in by one of the squat's more radical members, Gerrit, who helped her get clean. But his kindness soon curdles into a lopsided relationship that leaves Amelia dependent on Gerrit even as she resents his physical attention. Seven years later, when she becomes pregnant by another resident at Thirteen House, it forces long-simmering issues between the pair to a head.
The novel's shifting perspectives allow us to see things about the characters that they themselves aren't aware of. Amelia is so attentive to Gerrit that she can read his moods through "a subtle language of doors and windows and furniture," knowing that a slammed door means "come pay attention to me." It's only when we see Amelia through the eyes of the other female characters—they worry that she's too timid, childlike—that we think to question the power dynamic that she takes for granted.
One of the things Luna does subtly but well is draw characters who aren't defined by the way they live. This isn't some monolithic mass of angry squatters, determined to destroy the very concept of private property. Sure, some of 'em are like that, but more are substitute teachers, or repairmen, or market vendors, people at various points in their lives, from a range of backgrounds, just trying to continue to live in the place they know as home.
Luna is a longtime New Yorker who moved to Portland after realizing she couldn't afford to raise a family in New York; she wrote an essay about it for Salon in September. Being priced out of one's home is by no means a problem exclusive to New York City. Portland offers plenty of its own examples, from the massive displacement of African American families from inner Portland in the early 2000s to longtime punk and artists' houses whose landlords decided to sell once property values skyrocketed. There's a tendency to prioritize some narratives of displacement over others—we feel more sympathy for the low-income black family that has to move to Gresham than for the middle-class white woman who has to move out of Brooklyn. Revolution's squatters, kicked out of a building they lived in rent free but reclaimed from ruin, play on the sympathies in a more complex way still. But Luna skillfully ties the plight of Thirteen House and its profoundly human residents to the gentrification of the city as a whole, illustrating how someone can feel at once completely part of a city, and powerless against it.