Good writing comes from good reading, some people say, and Caleb Crain knows good writing. As one of America's foremost literary critics, with a Ph.D. from Columbia in English Lit, how could he not? His fiction debut, "Necessary Errors," a novel about expat life in Prague after the Velvet Revolution, is well-written indeed. The sentences roll on in plain language with only pinches and dashes of sesquipedalian words, even in Crain's historical discourses.
But it takes more than good prose to make a good story. Dramatic tension, compelling dialogue and some degree of character development also have to come into play. Yet the nearly 500-page journey through "Necessary Errors" is less of an adventure through unknown frontiers and more of an account of a fish-out-of-water's leaden flips, flops and wriggles on Kafka's old stamping ground.
In the early 1990s, if you were a recent grad looking to defer the rat race or "find yourself" in an exotic setting that was both affordable and full of high culture, Prague was the place to be. The iron curtain had come crashing down, and American-style capitalism was becoming increasingly welcome across the eastern bloc. Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" had taken the literary world by storm and even precocious American teenagers were dying to grow up and head east to live the seductive, sophisticated lives of Tomáš and Sabina. The reign of despots was over, and the people had elected poet-playwright Vaclav Havel as the first president of the new Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. The dollar was strong, at least east of Berlin, and there were plenty of jobs for English-language teachers, even if you had no teaching experience. Add to all this that it was a city so majestic that even Hitler, the guy who wanted to burn down Paris, had ordered his troops to spare Prague because it was just too beautiful to bomb.
Crain picked a most vital epoch for his subject, but don't go looking for anything Kundera-esque in his novel. For one thing, Crain's protagonist Jacob Putnam is American, and the novel documents his non-native, as opposed to Kundera's hard-bitten insider's, experience of the Czech capital. One can smell a roman à clef on its pages, which isn't a bad thing, but if an author is going to write a paean to a time and place that were grand to him, the narrative arc at least has to build up to some sort of climax that will make the experience grand for the reader as well. What we get instead in "Necessary Errors" is travelogue mixed with deft sociological insights into the new Czech Republic while the plot itself just sort of meanders.
We follow Jacob into his Soviet-style apartment building, and the third-person narrator describes its every nook and cranny. We meet the landlord and there's nothing left to the imagination about how he and his family appear; Crain tells all. We go with Jacob and his circle of expat friends to Wenceslas Square and Havelska and Stalin's monument and Crain gives us elaborate surveys of each locale. Yes, the book is detailed as all get-out, but all at the expense of narrative momentum.
This brings us to the issue of character development. It takes a lot of pluck to pick up sticks and move to the third world, but Jacob as a character is no live wire. He just kind of goes through the motions of navigating the absence of first-world amenities like private phone lines, brand names and wide varieties of produce. He displaces himself in Prague with the intention of being a writer, but we rarely witness him writing, and while this may be due to culture shock, he's such a steady-goer that we never get the sense that culture shock is anything that undoes him, so, again, why isn't he writing? A friend back home dies tragically, and when Jacob buys a hamster whom he names Vaclav, we know it's going to end in tears, but even these scenarios don't upend or transform Jacob in any kind of inferno-at-Tara way.
His interactions are monotonous even where there is great potential for drama. Jacob is gay in an intolerant time; he goes to a gay club and Crain paints a complete picture of the place and we get it -- it's not something he'd find in the States. But what does he find when he gets past the club's curmudgeonly gatekeeper? An impassive love interest named Luboš, who plays everything close to the vest and, it turns out, sleeps around for money. So what happens then? Well, it doesn't work out, so... cut to more descriptions of Prague floating down the river of molasses.
Jacob teaches English and we sit in on some of his classes. He and his expat friends pal around a lot, but their dialogue is so inanimate you'll need some of that extra-strength Czech coffee to stay up through it (though it is crafty and commendable how Crain provides a dash to denote that someone is speaking in Czech and quotes when they're speaking English). Jacob isn't "out" to most of his foreign friends at first, so will they reject him when they find out? No, he doesn't act too gay, so it's really no big deal. Was he suspected of being gay as a kid, and did it make him a social leper and scar him for life? Not that we know of, so there's another source of tension lost.
Vivian Mercier once published a review of "Waiting for Godot," which he called "a [two-act] play where nothing happens, twice." One might feel a similar bewilderment after tunneling all the way through to the last page of "Necessary Errors."
By Caleb Crain
Release Date: August 9, 2013