As 2013 winds to an end, magazines and media compile their annual “Best of” issues and articles on all topics of interest to readers and consumers. Books are no exception. The first such lists I read came from Slate, pitched as “Best books of 2013: Slate Staff Picks.”
This list came out on Monday and is not to be confused with Tuesday: The overlooked books of 2013. or Wednesday: The best lines of 2013, and the best poetry of 2013. or Thursday: Dan Kois’ 15 favorite books. All capped off with Friday: The Slate Book Review Top 10.
I like finding out about great books I’d missed in a given calendar year and it’s fun finding out which books writers I admire enjoyed this year. Perusing the list, I’d only heard of a few. Egger’s new novel about social media domination was familiar and one I’d been considering picking up. “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler about a child raised alongside a chimp as part of a psychology experiment sounded intriguing.
And then I was very surprised to see a book I’d read and which I’d found thoroughly unimpressive. David Haglund wrote in praise of “Necessary Errors,” a novel by Caleb Crain and I was curious what he liked about a novel I’d found so mediocre.
Having moved to Prague in 2003, two months after graduation to teach English, I was the target demographic for this coming-of-age story set in post revolution Prague, and following the mild adventures of a recent college grad who moves to Prague in 1989 to teach English.
And at first, I dug the book. Crain perfectly captures the feeling of living in Prague months removed from college. The sense that you are truly experiencing life, that you’ve taken a significant and worthwhile risk by moving so far from home, but combined with a dreading feeling that you are spinning your wheels, while peers back home move on with graduate school and careers. There is the magic of seeing a city with centuries of history become your home; and the loneliness of knowing you’ll always be a foreigner to the Czechs.
And the pacing, deliberate and cautious, worked for a while as I let myself become part of this world. Life abroad was more challenging before internet and cell phones. And for this protagonist, a recent out gay man, their was the newness of discovering gay life in post-revolution Prague. When a close friend from the states joins the protagonist, he upsets the delicate eco-system of the established group of friends, and the reader finds himself hoping things will work out.
But as the book dragged on and the protagonist began a successful and rewarding romantic relation with a former peripheral character, a young Czech man, the narrative drive of the novel seemed to slow. The other friendships become side-notes, and this love affair contains few obstacles to overcome. By the the novel concluded, I was happy to be done with this world. Crain is a talented writer, no doubt about that, but this felt indeed like a first novel, and his best work lies ahead.
So why did Haglund love this book. In the short blurb, he admits: “The set up…is unoriginal and not that much happens, really.” But goes on to say:
Which goes to show that none of those things matter when the writer is someone on whom, as Henry James once said, nothing is lost. Caleb Crain is that sort of a writer, and this novel, which recounts the coming of age and gradual uncloseting of an authorial alter ego, reconstructs a time spent in one place with exquisite, unsentimental detail. On Page 8, Crain describes some cheap Czech croissants, which are “straight, like swollen fingers, because at some point, under socialism, the traditional curve had been eliminated as frivolous.” I knew then I would like this book, and 464 pages later, finishing it was a bittersweet thing.
I still disagree. The writing is fine and the details exquisite. He sets the scene and the mood, but a good novel needs a lot more. I’ve tempered my previous glowing recommendations to friends by saying if you’ve lived in Prague, you’ll enjoy much of the book. And I’ll leave it at that.