An exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague
It’s October 1990. Jacob Putnam is young and full of ideas. He’s arrived a year too late to witness Czechoslovakia’s revolution, but he still hopes to find its spirit, somehow. He discovers a country at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, and a picturesque city overflowing with a vibrant, searching sense of possibility. As the men and women Jacob meets begin to fall in love with one another, no one turns out to be quite the same as the idea Jacob has of them—including Jacob himself. Necessary Errors is the long-awaited first novel from literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain. Shimmering and expansive, Crain’s prose richly captures the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it stretches toward adulthood—the chance encounters that grow into lasting, unforgettable experiences and the surprises of our first ventures into a foreign world—and the treasure of living in Prague during an era of historic change.
"In 1989, I was a 19 year-old man in Vienna, Austria. I was studying abroad, learning more about myself and my country and the way the world works than I thought possible. And I was coming out of the closet. At that point, I felt like I could create myself on my own terms, but was still reined in by my up-bringing, by what I felt were the perceptions of others. But I was also excited at the freedom at my fingertips. 1989 was an exciting year to be studying in Europe: Hungary and Czechoslovakia both opened their borders, East Germans were fleeing through these open borders into Austria and then into the safety of West Germany. And then the Berlin Wall came down.
Caleb Crain’s debut novel, Necessary Errors, opens in the fall of 1990, in Prague. Czechs are getting used to the changes brought about by the switch to a more capitalist and democratic society. Prices fluctuate, once certain things are in flux, and the possibility of freedom charges through the atmosphere. Jacob Putnam is a recent college graduate and budding writer who is teaching English in Prague. There he befriends several other expatriates as well as a handful of Czechs.
When they’re not teaching, they spend much of their time eating humble meals and drinking a lot of beer. They possess, in varying degrees, youthful optimism or early ennui. They are forming their personal outlook in life, most of them in what can feel like a world without the rules your fellow countrymen back home operate under. Life as an expat can feel like living without gravity. It is in this space that this excellent novel blossoms. As Jacob and his friends live this year in Prague, and try out new attitudes along with new experiences, they talk over their beers and slowly become adults. For Jacob, not only is he trying to figure out how to be a writer, and what to do when his year in Europe ends, but he’s trying to figure out how to come out as a gay man, especially in the rather stolid and unwelcoming attitudes of Eastern Europe. But more than just Jacob, it is his fellow expats and the Czechs themselves growing and changing as their country embraces a more Western attitude.
Caleb Crain builds this story through his excellent pacing. Crain does not hurry his story along. Instead, he steeps it in details, in a fascinating cast of characters who are given the time to become known to the reader. His writing is lush, filled with small details that are not there as mere ornament: they provide mood and insight into the characters. Crain captures both the everyday wonder and the mundane life of a young person living in a new country. Jacob spends his days teaching, or lying in bed, or exploring his new city, and thinking about writing. In reality he does very little writing, which seems quite realistic. Instead, he is taking in the world around him, finding his place in it. He may one day become a writer, and his writing will likely be informed by his experiences in Prague in 1990. Or he may never write again, and his life will be informed by his experiences in Prague in 1990.
As the novel comes to a conclusion, the bittersweet days of knowing you are leaving a city you have grown to love are beautifully depicted. We are left wondering if Jacob will regret leaving Prague to return to some (presumed) changed but still previous life in the United States. All in all, Necessary Errors is a beautifully written novel that captures perfectly a young man, foreign in an old society, buffeted by change, and developing a future. I’ve read that Caleb Crain did spend a year in Prague, and the writing is delightfully laden with details that could only have come from memories.
I’ll admit I am a little jealous of this achievement; I am still waiting to distill my memories of my year in Vienna into some coherent written form. Crain and I are roughly the same age, and perhaps it is this reason I felt this novel so acutely: I felt some of the same things Jacob did when I was in Vienna. And Crain captures not only the excitement of youth, but imbibes his story with the bittersweet experience of the twenty years his character, Jacob, has yet to live."