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Necessary Errors: A Novel Paperback – August 6, 2013

3.4 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

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



• The Wall Street Journal  Slate  Kansas City Star  Flavorwire  Policy Mic  Buzzfeed


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

Vanity Fair

“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.”
Marie Claire

“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.”
Harper's Bazaar

“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.”
Page-Turner, NewYorker.com

“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.”
Publishers Weekly

“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.”
Library Journal

“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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; F First Edition edition (August 6, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014312241X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143122418
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #552,859 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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By Robert Ginsberg on September 13, 2013
Format: Paperback
I'm not surprised that "Necessary Errors" has gotten such divergent comments here. It is definitely not a book for every taste. On one level, almost nothing happens--people talk, go to cafes, make friends, debate about the nature of fiction, get sick--and nothing at all dramatic occurs. But if you fall under its spell, you will not want it to end. The book has the quality of certain truly great Japanese works, like the films of Ozu or "The Tale of Genji," where the smallest gestures and most oblique words reveal deep emotions and complex relationships. As with Ozu, little seems to happen on the surface, yet you end up feeling you know the characters intimately and have even lived their lives.

The writing is ravishing, and the tone is perfectly controlled; there is not one false word in the book.

I was somewhat resistant to the rave reviews from the professional reviewers at first, but by the end of the book I had completely fallen under its spell and I did not want it to end. Now I think the reviewers are right: it is a masterpiece.

Give this book a chance, and if it speaks to you, you will be enchanted.
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There is an audience for this book: people who have travelled and lived in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. It's like a tiny time capsule described in clear elegant prose. Crain has an astounding ear for dialect.
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Format: Paperback
This book is set in Prague but it is not the "tourist" Prague that travelers see. This Prague is the city known by young people without much money in the years after the Velvet Revolution: trams, sticky tabled pubs, noisy happenings, stores that not have made the transition to free market goods. This book unfolds slowly, as it should, because when someone decides to live in a foreign city without knowing the language, meeting people and making friends and having adventures takes time. Friendships are complicated because these people are not putting down roots; they are transients. They are also young and impatient and passionate. Relationships with the natives are also complicated because they have lived so long in a totalitarian state. The author uses conversation and silences to reveal his characters.

The central character in this book is gay. If you do not want to observe the life and thoughts of a gay person, then do not read this book. However, you will be missing something wonderful.
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I visited Prague in 1990, toward the end of the time period covered by this book. The descriptions of landmarks, conditions and the mood of the city instantly took me back to things I hadn't thought about in years. His ability to capture the experience of a place that was opening itself to outsiders (and already drawing them in large numbers) caught my attention and made it easy to enjoy Crain's coming of age story. He captures life experiences that will be recognizable to expats, even those who have never visited Prague or came to expat life at some point after their early twenties. The story incorporates "coming out", the disappointments of early love and infatuation and the kind of close yet fluid friendships that are common in a first job, or in college. Some of the other reviews suggest a plotlessness that really isn't here--this isn't a postmodern jumble or a story without end. It's the unfolding of life in a bookish young man who has been closed to others because of his sexuality and protected by modest privilege and a stable upbringing. I found that I was absorbed by most of the book and Crain's ability to capture youthful experience, but a few things knocked off a star for me. Two of the three romantic relationships that structure large portions of the book emerge without realistic signs or pacing and occasional sections are leaden with density and excessive detail or description. Still, despite having read more than enough "coming of age" novels (indeed, starting one for a book club at about the same time), Crain's ability to capture a life is exceptional and the book is a worthy read.
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This novel collects characters like a tram during commuter hours; it does so without any real regard for their development or a compelling story-line that pulls them together. Consequently, the characters are lifeless and flat.

Furthermore, at times some of the characters are burdened with a philosophical veneer or compass that is clever but limiting in that it creates more distance between them and the reader, reducing the characters to a set of beliefs or ideals.

Perhaps the characters lack passion and resolve because they are involved in meaningless acts without any challenge or trial of conscience. Opportunities for such development were left unexplored in the novel. On the visit to Poland, there is an excursion to two of the death camps; at the second one Jacob refuses to go. This could have been a turning point for the novel in so many ways. The confrontation of characters caught in a constant mode of visiting with one of realizing place and history. If this moment was carried then back into their return to Prague and the invasion of Kuwait as it affects Jacob, Carl, Melina, and Rafe, then maybe a story would have emerged.
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