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Necessary Errors

A Novel

Caleb Crain - Author

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ISBN 9780143122418 | 480 pages | 06 Aug 2013 | Penguin | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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An exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague
 
Its October 1990. Jacob Putnam is young and full of ideas. Hes arrived a year too late to witness Czechoslovakias 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 themincluding Jacob himself.
            Necessary Errors is the long-awaited first novel from literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain. Shimmering and expansive, Crains prose richly captures the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it stretches toward adulthoodthe chance encounters that grow into lasting, unforgettable experiences and the surprises of our first ventures into a foreign worldand the treasure of living in Prague during an era of historic change.

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According to the pages on Eastern Europe that he had torn from a guide to gay life abroad purchased in Boston—burying the rest of the book at the bottom of a garbage bag full of food scraps soon after, so that no one would inadvertently come upon its advertisements for massage parlors and bath houses—there were two gay bars in Prague, and the one not described as “rough” was to be found in a street one block long near the foot of Wenceslas Square. After his last class on Friday, he made pancakes and ate them with a can of boruvky, which he had spotted in the window of a store near school, and which he thought were blueberries, since they looked and tasted like them. (They were bilberries, he discovered years later, when he had a better dictionary.) He showered, brushed the blue off his teeth, and slipped his Penguin Typee, a book he had brought with him from Boston intact, into the pocket of his raincoat. It was a long tram ride to the subway.

The tram was nearly empty. Most residents of the outlying neighborhood where he lived stayed home on a Friday night. He looked out the window idly. The tram ran through a manufacturing district, and for a mile or so there was nothing to see but low, gray, concrete-covered walls and long vertical sheets of corrugated metal ineffectually undermined by weeds. Intermittently, a wall gave way to a fence, and then a gate, through whose iron bars one could see the tall front of a factory. STANDARDS AND QUALITY FOR EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, read a slogan over the door of one of the factories. Further on, the tram ran past a housing development—a group of dirty white concrete high-rises, called paneláky.

Since he was alone in the car, Jacob slid open a window. It was a warm night. A breeze touched him haphazardly, like someone unfolding a shirt near his bare skin. Then the breeze whipped him gently in the face; he shut his eyes. When he opened them again he took out his paperback but paused on his bookmark, a postcard from a man he had fallen in love with back in America, unhappily. He knew the words on it by heart, of course: Daniel wrote that he had taken a job at a men’s magazine, which he described ironically, and foresaw that Jacob would soon have a tall, dark, Slavic lover. In a black-and-white photo on the other side, a shirtless model with a ponytail sneered angrily at the camera and seemed to be in motion toward it; the picture was blurry. Jacob had tried to convince himself he liked the image, because Daniel must have liked it, or must have thought Jacob would, or should, like it. In the time they had spent together, much of what Daniel had shared with him had taken the form of lessons. Jacob had been a poor pupil. Politics had made a path of resistance obvious. Just as he hadn’t believed Daniel’s claim that Thatcher and Reagan had brought freedom to the West as well as the East, he had declined to believe his theories of love, though he had been made to feel their power in his own case.

And now he didn’t believe this postcard. Czech men were neither tall nor dark, for the most part, and the name that Daniel had imagined for Jacob’s future lover was a Russian-sounding one, which a Czech man his age, born during the Prague Spring, would be unlikely to bear. He had traveled a long way in order to know more about something than Daniel did, Jacob observed of himself, mock-tragically. He tucked the card into a later chapter and tried to read a few pages of Melville.



At Mustek, the city’s central subway station, he alighted, and rose to the street level on an escalator that debouched beside a small pastry shop, now dark. He felt the sense of difference, the uneasy alertness, that comes over a person on the hunt. He would not be able to explain himself if any of his friends were to see him now. He felt painfully aware of the few people who glanced at him, as if a part of him was trying to keep a record of their faces, in case he had to answer to them later.

He found the street easily. The far end—it was no more than an alley, really—was boarded shut, and only the windows of one pub were lit, so once he had read this pub’s name off its windows and passed by it, he could have no pretext for walking here. Therefore he had to keep walking; he had to turn out of the street when, having doubled back, he reached the end of it; he didn’t stop until he came to Národní trída, a broad avenue a few minutes away.

There he rested his eyes on the books in a publisher’s display window and tried to think. He hadn’t seen any sign of the bar he was looking for, which was called T-Club. If you were to visit the street today, you wouldn’t find any sign of it, either; an establishment with the same name has opened in another part of town, but the particular club that Jacob was in search of that night has long since vanished, and the boards at the end of the block have been removed, to reveal a gated pocket park with wrought-iron benches, banks of flowers, and a long rectangle of water where children float toy ships with paper sails. Of course, Jacob didn’t know at the time what the boards hid; he wondered if the bar he wanted lay behind them, shuttered. He had to try again. The guide had given a street number. He would walk to that number and look slowly and carefully. He promised himself to look longer than felt comfortable.

When he retraced his steps, he found, to his surprise, that the street number corresponded to the pub with the well-lit windows. As he stood before it, awkwardly, he could see men drinking, talking, and smoking inside, a few in blue suits, most in street clothes. They were middle-aged, for the most part, many of them bearded. They had none of the self-watchfulness that Jacob associated with homosexuality. The name painted on the window was wrong, but perhaps the name had changed. Perhaps gay life in Prague was going to be different than he expected, more ordinary—plain, even. He stepped up onto the threshold.

No one turned, but the bartender shot him a look of dismay. Jacob saw his mistake. He was not in a gay place; Daniel had taught him that much about the gay world. He was in a straight place near a gay place, and partly out of courtesy, partly as a defense, the men here, he realized, kept up a pretense of blindness, which the bartender was afraid Jacob would break by asking a foolish question; with his look he was warning Jacob not to. It was no different here, Jacob decided. It was like home.



He stepped backward silently into the street, and saw, as he did, his vision sharpened by fear and anger, a flight of stairs overlooked before. They led down and to the left. No sign indicated that they led to T-Club, but Jacob followed them anyway, underground. At the bottom of the stairs was a floor-to-ceiling metal grille, painted black, into which a yellowish artificial vine had been artlessly wound. On the other side of the grille, leaning against the counter of a coat-check closet, was an attendant, a short, powerfully built man in his fifties, with a white pompadour and deeply lined, cigarette-gray skin, dressed, rather formally, in a fine white shirt and black slacks. He nodded when Jacob said good evening. Beyond him, around a corner, was the bar. Jacob could hear the tinny sound of European disco played on small speakers.

Since the attendant did not offer to open the grille, Jacob tugged at it. It seemed to be locked. There was no knob to turn. —Please, Jacob said in Czech, tracing a small circle in the air with an index finger, to signify unlocking.

Místo není.” The man shook his head. There isn’t room. “Keine raum,” the man added, in German, pronouncing the words as if he were addressing a child. He tapped a paper sign taped to the grille, on which was written a word Jacob did not know, no doubt an advisement that the bar was full.

—Later? Jacob asked in Czech.

For an answer, the man tilted his head back slightly and then looked away. The tilt might have been a variation on a shrug, an indication that the attendant didn’t know the answer to Jacob’s question, but his manner was so heavy with scorn that the gesture might equally have been a comment on the kind and number of questions it was his lot to endure. Jacob held both possibilities in mind and continued to study the man. He knew no other way to make sense of signals he didn’t understand. He knew no other way to make sense of signals he didn’t understand. He knew as yet only a few words of the language, and he had to make sense of such signals often, keeping, as a conversation progressed, a larger and larger hand of possibilities, like a player losing at a card game, until at last he was given a hint—drew a card that decided possibilities—and found himself free to set a number of them down.

A couple of men in their thirties pattered quietly down the stairs. They greeted the attendant, just as quietly, and he unlocked the grille with a large, old-fashioned key, admitted them, and, before Jacob had understood what was happening, locked the grille again behind them. There was no small talk as he checked their coats; they weren’t, in other words, the attendant’s friends.

It was a puzzle. Perhaps the attendant thought Jacob was too young for a gay bar and was protecting him. Or perhaps he thought Jacob, as a foreigner, might have come to the wrong place. Of course the sight of the two men just admitted, whose aspect was not ambiguous, would have cleared up Jacob’s misapprehensions, if he had been suffering from any. —Please, Jacob said in Czech, approaching the grille again, and gesturing along the path the men had just taken. —There’s room now?

The attendant answered rapidly and angrily, flicking a hand after the two men, as in dismissal. Jacob didn’t understand, and he expected that the man would yell at him in German if he asked him to repeat himself. He watched the attendant walk away, to the far end of the short corridor that was his province, and light a cigarette.

He couldn’t tell whether pressing his case had bettered or worsened it, but the attendant didn’t seem to object to his continuing to wait, so he took out his paperback. His eyes passed hollowly over the words.

At last there were shoes on the stairs again—louder this time, a clatter—and three young Czechs rushed down. The tallest, who had a comically long face and thin, sandy curls, seemed to be telling his companions a joke, which he himself laughed loudest at. “Dobrý vecer,” he saluted the attendant. There was something arch about the formality with which he spoke the greeting, and Jacob felt at once that he liked the young man. He drifted away from the wall he’d been leaning against, with the intention of slipping in behind the trio as soon as the attendant opened the grille. “Ahoj,” the tall, curly-haired man said to Jacob out of the corner of his mouth—now his voice was feline, and the greeting, sounding very much like the sailor’s hello in English, was a familiar one—to intimate that he had noticed Jacob’s approach.

The attendant had noticed it, too, and because Jacob didn’t want to take advantage of the young men’s entrée unless he was sure of their permission, and because he was put momentarily at a loss by the touch of proposal in the young man’s voice, he hesitated, and the attendant slammed the grille in his face with a clang.

“Hey,” Jacob said in English, startled into his own language.

“Are you American?” the tall young man asked through the grille. He had heavy-lidded, drowsy-looking eyes, but the rest of him seemed to be constantly in motion—turning, stretching, adjusting.

“Yes.”

“Come and talk to us,” he offered.

“I’d like to,” Jacob answered. It seemed superfluous to say that he wasn’t certain of getting in.

The three young men checked their coats, the tall one spinning, as they did, a long commentary that seemed to touch on every detail of the transaction, even down to the numbers on their claim checks, which must have been funny or lucky, because the other men laughed when the tall one called the numbers out, but Jacob could detect nothing in the way of an appeal to the attendant on his behalf, and soon the three turned the corner, out of sight, the tall one acknowledging Jacob’s predicament by no more than a wistful half wave, his hand at waist level behind him.

Jacob paced back and forth, then looked up the stairs that led to the street, deliberating. Unexpectedly, at this moment, the attendant whistled at him, as if he were a horse or a dog, unlocked the grille, and said, in English, “Please.”

He quickly stepped inside. The attendant extended his hand for his coat, smiling with a perfect falsity, and Jacob surrendered it. Sometimes Jacob had a hateful capacity to go along. He paid the two crowns and took his claim check. The attendant had no shyness about meeting his gaze. Jacob wondered what he would have to do later on, to get his coat back.



ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST BOOKS
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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 WoodThe 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.”Vogue

“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

"Dreamy."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.”Booklist

"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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