Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain

Necessary Errors: A Novel BY Caleb Crain. Penguin Books. Paperback, 480 pages. $16.
The cover of Necessary Errors: A Novel

The story of Americans exiling themselves to Europe has been told many times. These poor souls just won’t give up their search for new answers in the old world. In the past few years, characters like Ben Lerner’s narrator in Leaving the Atocha Station have gone abroad, hoping to find their real selves by leaving behind everything that's ever defined them. Usually, what they want to flee goes with them—personal baggage on a trip to the continent. So they return to the same question that’s been asked time and again: Can a change of scenery solve problems we have with ourselves? Has an existential crisis ever had a geographical solution?

Young and Ivy League–educated, Jacob Putnam arrives in Czechoslovakia for a year in the fall of 1990. He doesn’t strike strangers as gay, but he is. He wants to write, but he demurs from introducing himself as a writer. Instead of hammering out stories on his typewriter, he squanders his days teaching English, and spends his nights navigating his way out of the closet, one awkward solo gay bar experience at a time. Unlike ex-pat protagonists before him, Jacob meditates on his purpose in Prague without getting blinded by self-importance or lost in the search for himself. Precocious maturity and sweetness emanate from his interior monologue. Jacob’s a year late for the Velvet Revolution, but he comes just in time to see Prague shift its gaze from East to West. As his adopted countrymen look for sure footing in the freedom of their new world, Jacob does a similar calculus, earnestly searching for maturity as a gay adult and writer.

Jacob makes quick work finding his tribe, other spare-part ex-pats who insist on banding together to form something stable out of their collective uncertainties. Necessary Errors follows the machinations of this and other social circles Jacob falls in with, including a group of young Czech rent boys, one of whom asks him to transcribe the lyrics to a Depeche Mode cassette. By focusing on the quiet intrigues of these different social constellations, journalist and critic Caleb Crain’s debut novel is at times reminiscent of Jane Austen. Jacob and his friends spend much of the book sitting in bars around Prague and talking over beers and dumplings with “grayish purple cabbage.” They buy each other rounds of beer and dip into each other’s cigarettes. Most of the action is gestural. You never know where the book is going, except forward. Who cares: These ex-pats are perpetually lost but resolute.

Even without fireworks or frivolous plot twists, Crain generates just enough tension to keep pages turning. He is a good noticer of details, gently putting his finger on the way blood rushes to a woman’s face or how young men’s complexions change in each other’s company. He captures the melancholy of life in exile, “the abrupt, overwhelming, dizzying sadness that comes over people in countries not their own.” These passages afford Necessary Errors a tender intimacy throughout. Crain, who like his protagonist is gay, studied at Harvard, and spent time in Prague, pauses to dwell on the empathy in people: the way friends compliment each other for dancing well; how a young girl who Jacob tutors becomes sad when he tries to create professional distance in their relationship. “She was a child,” Crain writes. “Children can’t help but care about the people they’re with.” Adults are no different. The people around Jacob define his experience just as much as Prague does.

As Jacob grows into his new universe, Crain neatly develops the paradoxes at the heart of life abroad, chief among them the reality that beginning to feel comfortable in a strange place can mean losing a sense of home. The more homes you make, in other words, the more lost you feel. “I don’t know what I am in America,” Jacob says to a group of chemists who want to know about his life in the US, which he must inevitably return to. Just as Jacob feels like a phony when he talks about himself as a writer, he feels equally unsure about himself in relationships with men. Jacob doesn't see himself in the behaviors and values ascribed to gay men, and he has to reconcile his own values and ambitions with his expectations. Luckily, being abroad gives him space to do this work. He wrestles with concepts he learned in America about how muscles work as sexual currency between gay men. He says things to his friends like “I’m not a romantic. I’m gay, remember.” Early on in the book, Jacob assumes one of the Czech boys he sees is cheating on him because “evidently that’s the way it’s supposed to be with homosexuals.”

As he builds a life and an identity in Prague, often through trial and error, Jacob starts to build his own paradigms for being a gay adult and a writer. One night Jacob and his ex-pat posse infiltrate a mostly Czech party at a monument to Stalin, and he finds himself sensing that somewhere in the crowd is “someone who was gay but for whom gayness wasn’t the beginning and end of himself,” someone who understood “himself mostly just as someone attracted to people who were playful, inventive, and gentle.” Maybe he's sensing his own presence for the first time. As his year in Prague elapses, Jacob comes closer to experiencing a real sense of self, and finds himself living a life that he’s not sure he’ll be able to leave.

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. Though Jacob spends the book contemplating his “mission” or “project” in Prague, his real purpose there never becomes explicit to himself or to the reader. “He wanted things, he refused to stop wanting them,” Crain writes. It’s only later that Jacob finally understands “what he was searching for, as well as he ever had. It was a feeling about the world: an answering quality.” There are no easy answers about coming of age, but Jacob’s feeling is as good as it gets. The answering quality seems to be the feeling that comes when you begin asking your own questions, a process that can be much harder at home, surrounded by friends, family, and their expectations. It’s the ex-pat’s prerogative to develop this quality far away from the US, alone with the pressure you put on yourself. 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 is a writer based in Berlin.