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Twenty-something Jacob Putnam leaves his native America for post-Communist Prague in an attempt to find himself. Yet this debut novel by Caleb Crain, Necessary Errors (Penguin), is far more than another tale of a gay man’s self-discovery. With delicate prose and probing insight, Crain touches upon an array of universally felt and emotionally fraught issues.
The city that Jacob arrives in is one teetering on the brink of a new era. The flowerings of capitalism are slowly taking root as democracy trickles across what was the Iron Curtain. Having relatively recently come to terms with his sexuality, Jacob initially measures the state of Czech society through a rainbow-tinted lens. “Perhaps gay life in Prague was going to be different than he expected – more ordinary – normal even.” Expressed early on, this question reveals Jacob’s wish for a more mainstream gay existence, to be attracted to someone for their personality, not their sexuality. However, it also shows the lingering insecurities he retains about his identity (seeing it as not normal) despite growing up in a relatively accepting environment.
Throughout the novel, Jacob’s privileged liberal Western upbringing serves as a marker against life in Prague. By means of explanation, his first Czech lover, the prostitute Luboš, tells Jacob that not everyone is free to have morals. In an increasingly competitive, expensive and disparate society, the demand for money to simply survive drove people to extremes. However, Jacob’s privilege runs deeper than monetary security. He is free from the need to fight for acceptance based on his sexual identity, unlike those of Eastern Europe who had not yet seen their gay liberation movement. A writer struggling to write, Jacob initially wonders if, perhaps, that was his purpose in Prague – to witness the changes of his time, especially those that he was able to relate with so closely.
Their purpose, or “quest,” is a concern for many of the characters – what was it that led them to Prague? Through a multi-cultural expat community comprised of Americans, English, Scottish, Irish, German and Danish, Crain often explores the significance of living outside one’s native community. While life abroad can sometimes lead to a closer identification with one’s country and a renewed respect for some of its characteristics, it also allows unprecedented freedom. At home, we are so entangled in the drudge of the everyday that we are unable to look at ourselves objectively. Crain beautifully demonstrates that by removing ourselves from what we know, we are given the ability to learn to distinguish those constraints that are imposed upon us by our environment from our true nature. “There never are [expectations], for an exile. It’s a great privilege.” Free from societal constructs that we may not even be consciously aware of, we are able to question ourselves with a sense of clarity distance has made possible.
None of the expats travels to Prague for the same reason, but they all go with a purpose. Each of them are trying out different roles: the revolutionary, the socialist, the capitalist, the lover, the gay. They occupy the unique limbo of being both outside their native country and outsiders in Prague. This allows them to remain above the city’s starker realities. Yet rather than using this detachment to drift through life unthinkingly, they probe deep into life’s meanings and purposes. Jacob resists being the tourist, trying to assimilate as much as possible and even eschewing a camera reasoning that he “wanted to be present and natural more than he wanted documentation.” The quintessential importance of living in the moment, here alluded to, rises above the narrative as a unifying motif throughout the novel.
The Jacob we first meet is a man who feels physically ill after sleeping with Luboš for the first time. After necessary fumbles, he finds himself with Milo during his last months in the city. With the knowledge of his imminent departure, probably forever, Jacob is surprised to discover how meaningful their relationship is allowed to become. The two spend the mornings in bed, their afternoons wandering side streets hand in hand, or rowing boats along the river. It is free from expectation, which made them more reckless – they are not held back from pursuing their desires by worry. Jacob’s ability to love free from inhibition reveals the extent of his growth. In a book positively teeming with beautiful allusions such as wrapping fatigue around oneself like a blanket, the most profound discovery of all is nestled away on the very last page. In life, we blaze forward as if we are constantly travelling towards some set future – we perceive turning back as a sign of weakness, or of regression. With Prague long behind him, Jacob realizes too late that “it isn’t necessarily foolish to change one’s mind dramatically.”
The novel does not have chapters, but is rather divided into three parts which neatly conform around Jacob’s burgeoning love life. From unhealthy relationships to a time of solitude (aptly named after the fortress Vyšehrad), Jacob emerges in the final book as a man comfortable with his sexuality, willing to have both one-night stands and a meaningful relationship. This division is reminiscent of Madam Bovary and while reading, my mind frequently returned to Flaubert. Necessary Errors is not a quick read, and it has been criticised by some for being quite slow-paced. But that is precisely its beauty. It is a book that shines in its ability to map our complex human emotional landscape. Furthermore, while long, the narrative doesn’t drag. Crain’s careful prose gives the sense that each word serves a purpose, that nothing is superfluous.
Crain has gifted us a novel of incredible beauty and clarity. As Flaubert said, “Madam Bovary, c’est moi.” Given the weight behind his words, it is clear that Crain has, too, poured himself into this first work. Necessary Errors is an epic achievement that transcends the former limitations of the gay-coming-of-age genre–it is a novel of breathtaking humanity that teaches as well as entertains.
by Caleb Crain
Paperback, 9780143122418, 472 pp.