CERTAINLY NOT THE first novel about a young literary American at loose ends in the former Soviet bloc--that wave must have peaked ten years ago--but it may be the best.
I've been an admirer of Caleb Crain's writing since his contributions to the much-missed Lingua Franca in the nineties--contributions which, if he is the same age as the novel's Jacob Putnam, he must have made as a mere lad.
Jacob is teaching English as a second language in Czechoslovakia circa 1989-90, and in a neat little irony is doing a lot more learning than teaching, and furthermore, as the title signals, is generally learning in that most indelible of ways, by getting things wrong. Part of the strength of the novel is that it is about a young man of 22 or 23 and does a wholly convincing job of sticking to that point of view, but leavens it with insight gained later (making it seem truly fortunate for us readers that Crain did not publish ten years ago). The young Jacob grasps how extraordinary the experience he is having is, yet at odd moments the narration also lets us see that it is not extraordinary only in the ways he thinks it is.
Sounds like a bildungsroman, no? Well-educated but inexperienced, idealistic but a bit on the make, looking for love but keeping his options open, Jacob joins a long line that runs from Wilhelm Meister to Heinrich Lee to Frederic Moreau to Stephen Dedalus--with a nod to Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer as well. I expect this will be the most 19th-century 21st-century novel I will read this year: full, nuanced descriptions of exteriors and interiors; a wealth of richly extensive ensemble scenes; the arc of the development of the young protagonist's soul, a development simultaneously short (one year) and long (full of incident, surprises, blind turns, re-evaluations).
"I hate postmodernism," Jacob declares, and the novel's triple-decker-ish solidity suggests that Crain may be none too enamored of contemporary literary fashion, either. Even so, the novel possesses a willy-nilly po-mo-ism in that Jacob is a bildungsroman character who knows what a bildungsroman is--while in Prague, he is working through La Chartreuse de Parme in French--and in that, as an aspiring writer, he seems to undergo each experience with the intention of sooner or later writing about it. The whole cast, in fact, seem to know they are performing a very old script. Melinda, contemplating leaving her boyfriend for Jacob's fascinating friend Carl, notes that she will need a new place to stay:
"That's very kind [Jacob has offered her a place in his flat], but I can doss down at the Dum, you know. It's my right as a teacher. Annie will set me up. She's offered to before."
"Don't they keep track of your comings and goings?"
"Oh, it's socialism. There's no mistaking it. It would be like taking to a nunnery at the end of a novel."
"After the rogue leaves," suggested Jacob.
"Hey," said Carl.
At the core of Necessary Errors is the idea that the truths of maturation upon which the bildungsroman is founded remain true even if one learns all about them while still immature. Jacob, fairly early in the novel, ponders his having found out that his first Czech lover was, actually, a hustler:
It was in trying to sort out this sense of betrayal that he began to have an inkling of the mission he had set himself in Prague. He had to feel his way toward it at first. It was like trying to find something set down absentmindedly in the dark. When he did put a conscious hand in it, it seemed so ridiculous that he nearly drew his hand back. It seemed youthful and foolish. But perhaps it had only become ridiculous because he had abandoned it. Perhaps his abandonment, however temporary or optative had damaged it. [...] But then, abruptly, he found himself inside the idea again--and on the train, too, and looking out the window at the gray sky and black water. He would find it, if he didn't give up. The shadow at least was still here. He would have to find a way to keep patient.
A young man chiding himself for having been youthful, after encountering a disenchantment his reading has long prepared him for; aware of being a cliché, yet through some ghost of an intuition believing the cliché could nonetheless be the making of him...spot on, say I. Necessary Errors honors its 19th century tradition in a resonantly contemporary way.