"Oh, I've been to Prague," the lead in Noah Baumbach's 1995 film Kicking and Screaming says to his girlfriend, shortly bound for that city. "Well, I haven't 'been to Prague' been to Prague," he clarifies, "but I know that thing, that 'stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, date a sculptor, now-I-know-how-bad-American-coffee-is' thing." His attempted put-down hints at how quickly the post-college stint in post-Communist Prague became, for a certain set of sophisticated liberal-arts types, a cliché.
Critic and journalist Caleb Crain has "been to Prague" been to Prague, and one of the remarkable things about his rather remarkable first novel, Necessary Errors, is the way he makes "that thing" — the experience of an idealistic young American abroad — feel newly revelatory and important. The story is centuries old now; before Prague there was Rome, Paris, Madrid, Morocco (but mostly Rome and Paris). And Crain does not update the story with newfangled novelist's tricks, odd typography or funny drawings in the margins. He merely writes his characters and settings so well, with such precise attention to physical and psychological detail, that the reader feels introduced to a small world of people and places.
Some readers, like this one, might even wonder at first why Crain is describing so minutely the colors in a woman's hair, a plastic bag of milk purchased at a still basically socialist grocery, the wall panels at the city's central subway station. But before long the purpose of such pointillism becomes clear: Necessary Errors aims to vividly and carefully reconstruct a lost time.
The young man who fears he's losing time is Jacob Putnam, a Harvard graduate who has come to Prague with writerly ambitions but who finds himself not writing at all. He has taken a job teaching English in a state-run school and acquired a circle of expat friends. When the novel opens, only one of these friends knows that Jacob is gay. By the end, they all know — they have even met his young Czech lover, Milo, with whom he spends much of the book's last third.
The novel recounts a coming-of-age both sexual and literary, but its path isn't straight; it's barely a path. Jacob has a brief affair with a handsome older man whom he meets in a bar — and then learns that the man is not who he seemed (at least to Jacob). He stops seeking love for a while, mostly watching as the only stable couple in his circle are disrupted by a new American arrival. He takes a brief trip to Berlin and an even briefer one to Poland. Finally he takes up with Milo, knowing their affair has an expiration date: Jacob has been accepted to graduate school in the United States, and he plans to go.
Jacob senses a parallel between his newfound personal freedom and what the people of his briefly adopted country are experiencing in the first days after Communism. But Crain portrays these feelings with appropriate skepticism: what Czechoslovakia is going through in the year after the Velvet Revolution is not a sexual awakening, and the presence of Jacob and his friends in that country is not uncomplicated. (One of these friends appears to work for U.S. intelligence.) When the Gulf War begins, Jacob recognizes "the larger world" as "a setting where America was the principal actor," something that allows him, at least in theory, "to feel at home" anywhere. He regrets that sense of "grand entitlement," but he feels it anyway. As for communism and capitalism, well, "Jacob didn't know anything about economics; in America, a person with his ambitions, or lack of them, almost never did."
Jacob's friends in Prague are more generous, and Crain makes them pleasant company for the reader, too. The depressive Irish Annie with bad luck in love; the penniless German Kaspar, forever dissenting from the dominant regime; the sharp, black-haired Melinda, on whom everyone has a crush. Jacob spends much of his time in conversation with these friends and a few others, usually in bars. "He wanted to say that they had all become permanent to one another," he thinks during one of these talks, something he finds "terribly sad" but also "exhilarating," and "he wouldn't even be trying to talk about it if he weren't drunk."
There are more sober discussions, too, about love, capitalism and literature, subjects that, for this group, in this time and place, seem to bleed into one another.
"A story after all is a way of remembering love," Kaspar tells Jacob late in the book.
"I thought a story was something that trapped you," Jacob replies, remembering a remark Kaspar made earlier.
"But that is how," Kaspar tells him, speaking, perhaps, for the reader of Necessary Errors as well, who, by this point, feels very pleasantly trapped by their story. "It could not trap you if it were not about love."
By Caleb Crain
472 pp. Penguin Books. $16.