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Necessary Errors: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, August 6, 2013
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In this novel set in Prague one year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, young Harvard graduate and budding writer Jacob Putnam navigates the chaotic and exhilarating landscape of a city in transition. Living among a group of colorful expatriates while teaching English, he longs to identify the spirit of the revolution, but it seems forever out of his grasp. Having recently come out as a gay man in the U.S., Jacob at first feels uncomfortable with revealing his sexuality to his new friends and lives a secretive and lonely life. However, his eventual turn toward openness and pride mirrors the transformation of the city itself, as its citizens slowly adjust to their newfound freedom and growth in opportunity. In his first published novel, literary critic and journalist Crain creates a compelling and heartfelt story that captures both the boundless enthusiasm and naïveté of youth. In addition, the detailed descriptions of Prague and Czech culture, in general, are sure to please those interested in this fascinating period in Eastern European history. --Kerri Price
ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST BOOKS
• The Wall Street Journal • Slate • Kansas City Star • Flavorwire • Policy Mic • Buzzfeed •
A NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS' CHOICE
“Necessary Errors is a very good novel, an enviably good one, and to read it is to relive all the anxieties and illusions and grand projects of one’s own youth.”
—James Wood, The New Yorker
“Ferociously observed. . . . We’re not through with narratives about the Getting of Wisdom, Americans Abroad, Coming of Age, Gay Coming of Age, New Lost Generations. Among such works, a new narrative will be measured against Caleb Crain’s fine book, which will endure as a powerful entry in the great fictional exploration of the meanings of liberation.”
—Norman Rush, The New York Review of Books
“One of the remarkable things about [Crain's] 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. . . . 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. . . . Necessary Errors aims to vividly and carefully reconstruct a lost time. . . . Necessary Errors seems exceptional among recent American novels in how smartly it turns over the economic metaphors in so much American thinking.”
—David Haglund, The New York Times
“Evocative. . . . Necessary Errors so completely recaptures the smells and scenes and political conversations and above all the feelings of 1990-1991 Czechoslovakia that I began to actively worry that Mr. Crain was inserting new memories into my brain."
—Matthew Welch, The Wall Street Journal
“A new model for contemporary fiction. . . . It recalls the dreamy pacing of Henry James or Elizabeth Bowen.”
—Jane Hu, Slate
“Post-Iron Curtain Prague is the resonant setting of Caleb Crain’s entertainingly digressive first novel . . . about a young expat coming into an understanding of what he believes and who he loves.”
“Crain wonderfully evokes the novel’s setting in a few deft strokes. He’s a master of the thumbnail character sketch. . . . Line by line, the book is chock-full of masterly word choices and images. . . . On almost every page the reader is rewarded with gems. Necessary Errors heralds the fiction debut of a writer with intelligence and an engaging prose style. The book also serves as a document of a unique cultural moment that has vanished.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Caleb Crain's debut novel is at times reminiscent of Jane Austen. . . . Necessary Errors is a slow, beautiful look at the process of assembly, destruction, and revision specific to coming of age. It captures the Herculean task of forging one's own definitions of success and authenticity. . . . Crain's first novel is a subtle and magnificent look at a kind of freedom that young, thinking Americans can't find by staying at home.”
—Zeke Turner, Bookforum.com
“A story of considerable power. . . . Throughout the novel, Crain is his own meta-critic, making literary analysis a convincing part of Jacob’s narrative. . . . Crain’s mastery of this subtle kind of dramatic irony — in which we perceive truths that remain hidden from Jacob — is what gives the novel its cumulative emotional heft.”
—The Boston Globe
“Crain nicely captures the feel of two societies perched on the edge of becoming vastly more open—gay culture and the former Eastern Bloc—but where he really shines is in capturing the subtle, omnipresent disorientation of the expat experience.”
—New York magazine
“[A] smart, pensive novel. . . . Crain has a sharp ear for dialogue.”
—Hephzibah Anderson, BloombergBusinessweek
“An endearing and thoughtful look at the expatriate experience.”
“There's so much to like here that you'll want to take it slow. . . . Henry James, but gay and in ’90s Czechoslovakia.”
—Kevin Nguyen, Grantland
“With its characters’ earnest longing for self-definition, the comedy and sorrow of their falling in love with the wrong people and the number of scenes set in bars, the novel certainly evokes a 'Sun Also Rises' vibe. But Crain’s long, elegant sentences, meandering metaphors and omniscient point of view also owe a debt to Henry James. . . . Reading the novel feels like meeting up with friends. . . . One of the book’s best qualities is that evocation of what it’s like to live abroad. . . . Crain has a knack for making drama out of everyday life. . . . Crain does a fantastic job of immersing the reader in the setting, capturing both Prague’s physical details and its atmosphere. He handles the characters with equal depth and heart. They feel simultaneously realistic and storylike.”
—The Kansas City Star
“A sparkling first novel by the literary critic Caleb Crain about youth, ambition, and self-invention in early-90s Prague.”
“Despite the novel’s looming socio-political backdrop—the parting Iron Curtain and the Velvet Revolution—its story is mesmerizingly personal. . . . Like The Sun Also Rises, this book centers on the psychological events of each well-crafted character.”
—Lauren Christensen, VanityFair.com
“Crain brings sharp insight and graceful writing to this portrait of the upheavals of youth played out in a country undergoing a historical turning.”
“Elegant and intellectually robust. . . . Like Prague itself, Jacob will have to remake himself eventually, and Crain makes that need feel essential and bittersweet.”
—Mark Athitakis, Newsday
“Crain reinvents the novel of the innocent abroad in his well-wrought debut.”
“Crain (American Sympathy) continues his ascendant career with this fully realized debut novel, which delights and surprises with every paragraph. Fans of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station will find themselves similarly enchanted here.”
“A long-awaited debut by one of the brightest literary and journalistic minds today, Caleb Crain’s novel, Necessary Errors, chronicles a young man’s experience in Czechoslovakia following the Velvet Revolution. He’s missed the bonfires, but the flames haven’t completely died out, and the morning-after light is the right intensity to survey the cultural landscape.”
—The Daily Beast
“A compelling and heartfelt story that captures both the boundless enthusiasm and naïveté of youth.”
“Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. . . . The adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner.”
—Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions
“I've long admired Caleb Crain’s writing, and Necessary Errors is a tender, immersive, insightful novel. Its author builds with affection a world large and small--of early-nineties Prague, gay nightlife, the hardships of laundry, the penumbra of post-Soviet capitalism, beer versus tea, intense ex-pat friendships, a hamster who lives in a pot, and the hopeful stages of love.”
—Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding
“This novel sounds like nothing else happening now in American fiction. It’s a tale of erotic awakening that contains--more like encodes--an attempt to read an historical moment, the nineties, when it seemed to many people that history was over. It has shades of Young Werther blowing through it. And shades of Young Törless. But also something other that’s quiet and powerful and its own.”
—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
“In its rich and elaborate depictions of a time and a life, of character and growth and pain, and in its psychological curiosity and emotional rigor, Necessary Errors is a rarity—a brave, humane, dignified novel of eros and youth in the shadow of history.”
—Donald Antrim, author of The Verificationist and The Afterlife
“It is rare, and most welcome, to read a first novel with as much elegance, intelligence, humor, and tenderness as Necessary Errors. It is also rare to read any novel that creates this much beauty with such a light but sure touch. An exquisite debut.”
—Stacey D'Erasmo, author of The Sky Below and A Seahorse Year
“Caleb Crain's beautiful novel is a real feat of memory and invention, which captures the feeling of being young, sensitive, and vaguely but intensely ambitious better than anything I know in recent fiction. Everything in Necessary Errors feels both transitory and indelible, and isn’t that the way?”
—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision
“Caleb Crain has written a novel of surpassing intelligence and unexpected beauty about a young American’s year in post-Communist Prague -- and about how we find, and construct, the story of our lives. His great achievement is to make the unfolding of Jacob Putnam’s newfound sexual freedom resonate with the unfolding of Czechs’ new historical freedoms, so these separate arcs seem of a piece. His precision of description, whether of architecture or emotional weather, is enviable; his dialogue both playful and profound. It is rare to read a book of this length and feel that every sentence mattered, rarer still to finish a novel of such intellectual depth and be so moved.”
—Amy Waldman, author of The Submission
“As someone who is often unduly nostalgic about having been in her twenties during the 1990s (though not for as good a reason as having been in Prague during the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution), this novel triggered something like a sense memory. Caleb Crain is remarkable at capturing that time in life when ambition and longing are at once all-consuming and all over the map. I winced in self-recognition more than once -- and marveled at the author's insights more often than that.”
—Meghan Daum, author of My Misspent Youth and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House
“Caleb Crain describes a young man's and a country's first tastes of freedom with a lucid and matter-of-fact intelligence. Necessary Errors offers an invaluable record of Prague at the beginning of the 1990s in a style that places it among the great novels of Americans abroad. It's The Ambassadors for the generation that came of age with the downfall of the Soviet Union.”
—Marco Roth, author of The Scientists
“I don't know that I’ve ever read a novel that gets down, the way this one does, how it felt to be an American and a gay man at the end of the Cold War--so exiled from the country you grew up in that you go abroad to make a new world. Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors is an adventure of the head and heart. His hero, Jacob, turns to the cafes, bedrooms, and libraries of newly free Eastern Europe, an American in search of a European Bildungsroman, in search of love and possibility both.”
—Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh
“Youth and innocence--remember them? Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors stabs the heart with the story of Jacob Putnam's sentimental education in Prague, and reminds us that to be young is to live abroad in a fallen empire where the talk goes on all night, the dumplings are sliced thick, and blue jeans are rare and too expensive. Pick this novel up and you won't forget it.”
—Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True
“A coming-of-age story set against a unique and foreign backdrop, Necessary Errors is a poignant work of fiction grounded in history.”
—The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Top Customer Reviews
`Necessary Errors` is a love story (or rather several), a coming-of-age saga, and most of all, a bildungsroman of a young gay man finding himself abroad. Texas-born, Harvard graduate, Jacob Putnam has found himself floating in Prague on the waves of post-revolution euphoria. He has just come out and like his adopted Praguers, is tasting the delights (and limits) of a new-found freedom. Finding work as the ubiquitous `language teacher, ` he joins a group of similarly idealistic and unmoored ex-pats living the heady atmosphere of 1990`s Praha. There`s Annie, a flame-locked Irish lass who becomes Jacob`s closest confidante, the handsome and straight Scot, Thom, the cerebral and eccentric Englishman, Henry, and the pretty `English rose,` Melinda, whose movie star looks and imperial bearing make her pack-leader.
And there are others, Germans, like pallid Kaspar obsessed with Czech poetry and Prague`s Jewish past and Danes like the embittered socialist, Hans, who mourns the demise of socialism. And of course, there are the the Czechs themselves. The Stehliks, Jacob`s courteous but suspicious landlords, struggle to understand why Jacob left the land of plenty. Then there are the boyfriends, Lubos and Milo. And even another American, Carl, Jacob`s friend from the States, joins the pack of comrades in hopes of experiencing `it` before `it` moves on.
With its colorful cast of characters, `Errors` reads like a Dickens` novel. Crain artfully captures the tension and euphoria of being young and footloose abroad, stumbling from one life experience to another. Jacob and pals connect in dingy classrooms, smoky `lokals, ` smokier coffeehouses, deafening discos and of course, down sooty alleys at four in the morning. This novel celebrates that unbearable lightness of being that disappears as fast as you live it.
Despite its voluminous size, `Errors` reads fast. It is mostly dialogue, as the characters question themselves and tackle the big questions of life, love and the future. And all this against the backdrop of a city and society born anew. These conversations saunter along effortlessly, as if you the reader were eavesdropping along. Crain masterfully integrates Jacob`s blossoming proficiency with Czech. Meaning is gracefully hinted at rather than directly translated.
“Rekni ti to pozdej,” said Jacob.
“No, don`t tell him later either. That`s no better,” snapped Annie.
As some reviewers have correctly pointed out, no grand action or profound change occurs within these 472 pages. No dramatic courting, no scenes of relationships gone awry, no marriages, deaths, tragic things whatsoever. Rather, this novel is an exploration of identities, what it means to be young, American, a `westerner, gay, and most of all, what it means to stand before those `big` events in life that determine destiny. Even sex is treated in a minor, almost superfluous manner. `Errors` is a novel of intentions, dreams, and perhaps most of all, desires and their irrevocable consequences.
With its omniscient narration, `Errors` lets you get into each character`s head and explore his or her motivations. As we follow Jacob into his classes, walk with him to his lovers` place or eavesdrop on his conversations with Annie, we climb a little deeper into his psyche. Yet, motivations remain vague at best, alluded to, but never declared.
Despite its god`s eye view, `Necessary Error, ` is Jacob Putnam`s story. We follow him from his shy excursions into Prague`s gay underworld, to his naïve infatuation with Lubos, and eventually to his uneasy,if more mature, `relationship` with Milo. The two become lovers and friends if not actual partners. This is young love, first love and its terminus is fixed. Jacob will return home to grow up. Yes, this is a novel of youth above all and the necessary errors we must make in order to stumble over the doorstep of maturity.
Yet, Jacob wants to prolong a world of open ends for as long as possible. “Her mysticism fell in with an idea himself that he wanted to keep as long as he could of himself as a person on an errand whose nature was still unfolding.” Ditto for `Necessary Errors” the novel as well. It`s a journey of self-discovery melded with an exacting portrait of a certain time and place. It`s `The Great Gatsby` coupled with `Giovanni`s Room.` Yet, these are only shadowy analogies. Rather, Caleb Crain has crafted something highly original and always in style: a great American novel.
Mr. Crain displays an uncanny ability to observe day-to-day human conditions that often go unspoken, and almost reminded me of Louis C.K. in this observational ability, and serious humor.
The novel does seem to get slow at times, as there is not much happening, plotwise, in the conventional, TV-drama sense (the protagonist, an american teacher in Prag –gay, not that there is anything wrong with that– , finds a Czech lover, has a friend visiting, witnesses two friends getting romantically close, has another lover etc.)
But what the novel 'lacks' in event-bombardment, it more than makes up for with the beauty of the prose, its observational subtlety, and humor, I'm not accustomed to observing literary humor to this extent in a dead-serious book, since reading some of my favorite DFW or Nabokov novels.
AND it does get better and better as you progress. Many of the last 100 pages left me thinking 'nobody should be allowed to write this good', and hurriedly copying passages to my quote book (I know).
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