Caleb Crain’s excellent, obstinately old-fashioned debut novel, Necessary Errors (published in early August), is set in Prague in 1990 — less than a year after the Velvet Revolution that dismantled Czechoslovakia’s single-party Communist regime and established a parliamentary republic. The transitional period that followed created an atmosphere at once hopeful, gloomy, and expectant, and it’s precisely this triad of moods that Crain maintains so consistently throughout the novel, both with his prose — vivid, structured, glowing, meticulous — and his imagery. “The sun had not gone down, but it could not be seen. So neutral was the twilight, in fact, that instead of fading from behind the leaden clouds above, it seemed to be settling out of the air one walked through, as if it were a kind of dust.”
To this bleak but propitious Prague Jacob Putnam sojourns, giving up his lucrative job as a copywriter in Boston to teach English to Czech students on contract. Recently graduated from Harvard, and even more recently out of the closet, Jacob has private hopes for his experience. Though he carried on a few half-romances back in Boston, he’d like to settle further into his sexuality and see how he fares in the European gay scene. As an aspiring novelist with zero output to speak of, he’d like to write. More vaguely and ambitiously, he’d like to witness history, to synthesize the spirit of Europe’s great transformation with his own:
It was a common enough project for an earnest, idealistic young person who was comfortable with only one pleasure, reading, and who had graduated college in the year of the protest in Tiananmen Square, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution, so that his first personal experience of adult freedom … seemed echoed by the wider world.
Upon arriving, Jacob joins a cadre of fellow 20-something expats directly and indirectly connected to the school where he teaches. There’s Annie, a melancholic young Irish woman who becomes the first to learn about Jacob’s sexuality; Harry and Thom, indistinguishable Scots who drink, josh, and otherwise carry much of the novel’s comic relief; Carl, a sarcastic and self-centered American that Jacob knows from Boston; and Melinda, a casually elegant, whip-smart Brit who, in my imagination of the novel, looks like Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery.
Necessary Errors is very much a traditional expat novel (in the vein of A Moveable Feast and The Portrait of a Lady), and the scenes of the group going on bar crawls and throwing dinner parties and meeting for weekly writing circles provide the “stuff” — the easy entertainment, the memorable atmosphere, the absorbing intellectual debates — that every great story about young people abroad should have. They’re what make the novel lovable, instead of simply interesting and important.
Norman Rush, writing in the New York Review of Books, has wisely likened the circle of friends to a commune: “The new Czech branch of the World Capitalist Republic [is] achieving a brutal success. Only the friends are a utopia of a kind — devoted to mutual support, crash pad services … visiting any one of them who falls sick.” Confined by their youth, inexperience and relative poverty, they live in a bubble, a kind of sunny waiting room outside the darker offices of adulthood.
They speak of their ambitions and life trajectories in the vaguest terms possible. Of their low-paying jobs, Annie says, “It’s as if we’re meant to be building something in ourselves, for now.” Jacob’s journey to Prague “took the shape of a story,” and he “had the sense that everything in his life up to that point was prelude, which might safely be skipped by anyone who came late to the story.” Another character says of Melinda: “She has not altogether become herself … She has not yet found her fate.”
Despite their health, spirits, and intellectual armaments, none of the friends have “become” anything, nor do they seem particularly pressed to do so. But, as Melinda (the voice of pragmatism in the novel) points out, “We all must become something.”
Slowly but surely the reality of adulthood begins to encroach on the utopian bubble, usually in the form, symbolically and not, of money. Of all the novel’s major motifs — “story,” illness, the comedy of translation — money is the one to watch out for; and the secret theme of Necessary Errors is the inescapability of a monetized existence.
When Jacob takes a gig teaching private English lessons to a student’s children, he creates a fictional barter-system market out of toys to demonstrate interrogatives like “which?” and “how much?” What he doesn’t realize is that the concept of negotiating high prices and reaping large profits is new to the children, who have grown up under a Communist regime. The miniature taste of greed works its magic quickly. Exchanging a watch for a 20-crown note, the daughter “fluttered in a celebratory way, as if she were curtsying and it were a ribbon.” During another transaction, the son “grabbed the bill from his sister, and adding it to his own, threw the two notes at Jacob.” “Though it felt like play money to Jacob, it was real to the children, who didn’t ordinarily handle it, and it seemed to be exciting them…. In their greed [they] lost all inhibition.”
Given Prague’s purgatorial financial situation, “America” and “money” become interchangeable concepts, not only for the Czechs Jacob interacts with but for Jacob as well. In the novel’s most moving depiction of homesickness, he tears up at the sight of a penny: “It was so homely … that there was a kind of democratic grandeur to it. It was the most beautiful currency in the world.” At other moments, Jacob resents the intrusion of America and its attendant echoes of easy wealth into his solemn, pure-of-spirit Prague. When Carl (a paragon of American entitlement and intellectual imperialism) flirtingly shows Melinda his necklace, Jacob observes: “It was made of a dull, light metal, a cheap alloy, and it was about the size of a nickel.”
Jacob’s bitterest encounter with money, though, comes in his love life. Early in the novel, at one of the city’s two gay bars, he meets an older man named Luboš, with whom he begins a courtship. Luboš is handsome but, more alluringly for Jacob, mature. He’s perennially nervous about business and money — anxieties Jacob has thus far been protected from. But his aura of jadedness turns out to have a more nefarious source: like a lot of gay men in Prague at that time, Luboš is earning money as a prostitute. The revelation momentarily shatters Jacob. Oz steps out from behind the curtain; the European romance Jacob daydreamed about back in Boston turns out to be built on a foundation of crime — and money.
Though Jacob temporarily gives up men, he does not retreat completely into self-pity: After saying his final goodbye to Luboš, he begins picking up lucrative work giving private English lessons (like those with the children). The juxtaposition of these plot points gives us a sense of Jacob’s resilience. His response to the news that his lover has sex for money is to augment his own capital (albeit via legal means). Had he opted instead to run away, disillusioned and afraid, from the “systems of money and responsibility” that seem to haunt the world around him, we might have understood and even sympathized. But Jacob chooses power, not innocence.
I called this novel old-fashioned. There are formal reasons for that: it’s linear, unhurried, rich in detail, PG-13. But there’s also something boldly classic —something pre-internet, if you will — about Jacob’s trajectory. His ideals don’t hold up for long in soon-to-be-capitalist Prague. But instead of receding into a kind of Gnostic asceticism he chooses to embrace reality, to “become something.”
20-somethings today have gotten into a rhythm of identifying as a financially powerless entity — Generation Jobless, Generation Stuck, Generation Move In With My Parents. Power is a word we rarely invoke when we talk about ourselves, perhaps because power is inseverable from money, and money is such a sore subject. But being-in-the-world, as Jacob learns, is only fungible through money. Earn it, spend it, doing ugly things for it we must. If Necessary Errors feels at all out of touch with the experience of millennials today, it’s because it’s not about a 20-something creating a comic persona from his unreadiness for real life. It’s about a young man receiving an education, and an unsentimental one at that.
Necessary Errors was published in early August by Penguin.