"Being here is what you're doing, when you're here" - a young protagonist seeks to align himself with a place in transitionby Hephzibah Anderson / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain (Penguin US, £10)
Travel is not what it used to be. These days, even the most far-flung destinations can seem naggingly familiar. In his debut novel, Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain circumvents this artistic hardship by journeying back in time as well as across land and water, setting his dreamy young Bostonian down in Prague in late 1990. What follows is a classic tale of an innocent abroad with some pleasingly contemporary social twists and much sincere philosophical commentary on themes such as love and greed.
Arriving in Prague to pursue literary ambitions, Jacob Putnam encounters a city that’s about to become foreign to itself. Less than a year has passed since the Velvet Revolution and though the Czechs are captivated by capitalism they remain in thrall to the old system. Bribes are endemic yet nobody seems to understand that white-collar workers will soon automatically earn more than their blue-collar cousins. And until boxes of “kornfleky” appear in the window of a new private bakery, breakfast means pastries that are like croissants, except for being straight. Their curve was deemed frivolous under socialism.
Jacob is in personal transition, too, having recently come out as gay. The defining relationships here are platonic, however, and he’s soon befriended by a group of fellow expats. Young enough to talk all night of Kant and Kafka, they drift through their days without urgency. As Jacob puts it, summing up the true appeal of life abroad, “Being here is what you’re doing, when you’re here.” The novel’s unhurried pace reflects this, permitting a refreshingly complex portrait of Eastern Europe back when it really was the East.