Necessary Errors: A Novel

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Overview

ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST BOOKS
The Wall Street Journal • Slate • Kansas City Star • Flavorwire • Policy Mic • Buzzfeed

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 Wood, The New Yorker

An exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and ...

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Necessary Errors: A Novel

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Overview

ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST BOOKS
The Wall Street Journal • Slate • Kansas City Star • Flavorwire • Policy Mic • Buzzfeed

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 Wood, The New Yorker

An exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague

It’s October 1990. Jacob Putnam is young and full of ideas. He’s arrived a year too late to witness Czechoslovakia’s 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 them—including Jacob himself.

Necessary Errors is the long-awaited first novel from literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain. Shimmering and expansive, Crain’s prose richly captures the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it stretches toward adulthood—the chance encounters that grow into lasting, unforgettable experiences and the surprises of our first ventures into a foreign world—and the treasure of living in Prague during an era of historic change.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Jacob Putnam arrived in Prague in October 1990, just months after the Velvet Revolution had secured Czechoslovakia's democracy. Living among fellow expatriates in these heady times, he shared their hopes, their speculations, and sometimes their heartbreaks. This debut novel by New York Review of Books regular Caleb Crain captures the excitement and uncertainty of a young gay college graduate testing his own freedoms in a time of great flux. A coming-of-age novel adroitly knit into a larger social setting; certain to be widely reviewed and discussed.

The New York Times - David Haglund
…one of the remarkable things about [Crain's] rather remarkable first novel…is the way he makes…the experience of an idealistic young American abroad…feel newly revelatory and important. The story is centuries old now; before Prague there was Rome, Paris, Madrid, Morocco…And Mr. Crain does not update the story with newfangled novelist's tricks, odd typography or funny drawings in the margins. 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.
The New York Times Book Review - Aaron Hamburger
Crain wonderfully evokes the novel's setting in a few deft strokes. He's a master of the thumbnail character sketch, populating his novel with memorable supporting characters…Crain also provides telling details of expat life, like the joy of finding a store that sells cornflakes, or the constant difficulty of making plans to meet up with friends without the conveniences of landlines, let alone cellphones or electronic communication. Even better, he captures the slow pace of life of his innocents abroad, whose biggest adventure is choosing a bar for a drink…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.
Publishers Weekly
Crain reinvents the novel of the innocent abroad in his well-wrought debut. Fresh off the failure of his first relationship since coming out (at least to himself), Jacob relocates from Massachusetts to Prague, where he discovers a loose-knit community of expatriates, many of whom, like Jacob, teach English to Czechs. It’s 1990, and Prague—perhaps like Jacob and his friends—is poised on the brink of changes it does not yet fully understand. Jacob, an aspiring writer, is both sensitive and observant, a witness to his friends’ romantic entanglements as well as the victim of heartbreak himself. The novel is full of the kinds of conversations shared by intelligent, earnest young people everywhere; the parallels between their idealism and uncertainty and those of their adopted country are handled with great skill. “Being here is what you’re doing, when you’re here,” Jacob observes to a friend; this freedom from responsibility and traditional aspirations is what both attracts Jacob and makes him uneasy. The unhurried pace and lack of conventional plot seem deliberate; instead, it’s Jacob’s ongoing redefining of “exile” and his discovery of self in an unfamiliar community that provide meaning and richness. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
ONE OF THE YEAR'S BEST BOOKS
The Wall Street Journal - Slate - Kansas City Star - Flavorwire - Policy Mic - Buzzfeed

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

Kirkus Reviews
Crain takes us into the lives of expats teaching English in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. At the core of this group is Jacob Putnam, a 20-something gay man who wants to become a writer but who's temporarily keeping body and soul together by teaching. He's also exploring his sexuality, a journey that takes him to the T-Club, a gay bar he discovered through an "alternative" guide to Prague nightlife. There, he meets a man, and they have a brief affair that initiates Jacob into the gay subculture of that city. At his day job, Jacob warily befriends a small circle of fellow teachers but is frequently unable to determine how much he should reveal to them about his sexual orientation. Rafe and Annie are a cohabiting couple, though later in the novel, Annie runs away from Prague with Carl, a friend of Jacob's. Another teacher, Thom, is a Scot who makes jokes about gays while remaining ignorant of how much this hurts Jacob. Kaspar is one of the last die-hard socialists in Prague and likes to engage Jacob in conversations weighted with philosophical significance. This brave new world of post-repressive sexual freedom is supposed to be a place where, according to Jacob, "[n]o one is allowed to limit anyone's options," but this remains a Utopian ideal as long as relationships are real (and hence un-Utopian). Ultimately, Jacob takes up with Milo, who believes Jacob to be the author he wants to become, though ironically, Jacob decides he has to leave Prague--and Milo--to become the author Milo already thinks he is. Crain's world is drenched with the climate and colors--sometimes drab--of a post-revolutionary world of possibility and promise.
Library Journal
Crain (American Sympathy) continues his ascendant career with this fully realized debut novel, which delights and surprises with every paragraph. The setting is 1990 Prague, a year after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The story follows Jacob, a gay American college graduate whose ambitions of becoming a writer are frustrated by his surroundings. "'I'm an American,' Jacob protested. 'There's no one I can blame for holding me back.'" The plot is compelling, but Crain's talent for nuance and dialog, particularly in the gay bar scenes, is an observational wonder. Through a historic lens, Crain details the beautiful East European capital city's transition from Communist to democratic rule. VERDICT Not an easy exercise in nostalgia, this novel is a pleasure to navigate with its large, likable cast. Fans of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station will find themselves similarly enchanted here.—Travis Fristoe, Alachua Cty. Lib. Dist., Gainesville, FL
The Barnes & Noble Review

Necessary Errors is the highly anticipated first novel of cultural critic Caleb Crain. Like many debut works of fiction, the book is a coming-of-age story. Crain's is about a young American man, Jacob, who finds himself unmoored and teaching English in recently revolutionized Czechoslovakia. Like the country, Jacob is going through a metamorphosis, testing the waters as an openly gay man. But when Czechs and expats alike ask Jacob what he is doing, he is unsure of how to answer to them or himself. He wants to write, but can't find his inspiration. "He had a sense that everything in his life up that point was prelude, which might be safely skipped by anyone who came late to the story."

Jacob may be a cipher for Crain, and Necessary Errors is proof that he has overcome his block for fiction. Each chapter of this lengthy novel, at 472 pages, features a beautifully rendered description of time and place. "He still had some American change . . . one night, after he had finished his pancakes and jam, he took the coins out . . . admired the burnt sienna patina of one of the pennies, which in the candlelight was iridescent with violet and green where people's touch had salted it." With an impressive cast of characters, including Carl, a straight friend Jacob once professed his love to in America, and the lithely beautiful Melinda, Crain has managed to capture that crystallized time in one's life, after college, when everything is terrifyingly possible. Near the end of the novel, a Czech woman, trying to articulate the idea of being tied down, says "bindings." Jacob replies, "No, that's not it." "A child is one," she says. "A garden." "Commitments," said Jacob. "She doesn't want any commitments."

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR, The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.

Reviewer: Jessica Ferri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143122418
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/6/2013
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 572,902
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Caleb Crain is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he is the author of the critical work American Sympathy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Caleb Crain's extraordinary debut novel explores the lives and loves of a group of expatriate friends teaching English in Prague. At the center of the group is Jacob Putnam (the hero of Crain's novella Sweet Grafton), freshly graduated from Harvard and just coming out as a gay man. Jacob has traveled to Prague to teach and to give himself a year to develop as a writer before returning to America and the adult responsibilities that await him there. It is a transitional period not just for Jacob and his friends but for the Czech Republic itself, as it shifts from Communism to capitalism and from authoritarian rule to greater political, social, and sexual freedom.

Though he has plenty of time to write, Jacob is not writing. He's still feeling the sting of his rejection by Daniel, a man he had fallen for back in Boston. He's uncertain about how to come out to his straight friends at the language school but determined to take advantage of the new possibilities in Prague and to explore his own emerging identity as a gay man. Early in the novel, Jacob falls in love with Lubos, a handsome Czech engaged in a somewhat mysterious business partnership. The romance ends in disappointment, and Jacob feels that he's learned a painful lesson, which he takes to heart and vows not to repeat, about his own relative innocence in a country that is morally and economically in flux as its people adjust to a new set of rules and expectations.

In many ways, Necessary Errors follows the contours of the traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, tracing the growth from youth to adulthood, innocence to experience, confusion and uncertainty to greater self-knowledge and purpose. But Crain's inward, strongly atmospheric novel eschews a conventional plot and instead lets the lush, impressionistic writing carry the reader along. The book unfolds in episodes that never have the overly tidy feel of serving a schematic purpose, reflecting instead the messiness of life as it actually happens. Jacob and his friends gather at pubs, art galleries, and parties where they have lively, witty, and at times combative conversations about politics, art, literature, and life; they live cheaply, drink copiously, fall in and out of love with each other, and feel an anticipatory nostalgia for deepening friendships they know must soon end.

The real magic of Necessary Errors lies in Crain's exquisite prose, his pitch-perfect ear for smart dialogue, and the subtlety of observation and self-observation that runs throughout the book. Indeed, Jacob's tracking of his and others' shifting emotional states attains a fineness of perception rarely equaled. Of Jacob's relationship with Milo, for example, the narrator observes: "When Milo was around, he wasn't able to hear himself anymore. He was only able to hear what he had to say to Milo. That was the problem with other people; that was the problem with just living your life. He ought to have written a second novel during the time he'd spent in Prague." But Jacob's self-reflection goes several steps further: "He was awfully grand, even in misery, wasn't he. He was feeling the sort of frustration whose pettiness inclines one's better self to wish to dismiss it, if it were possible to" (p. 428). That better self-or the desire to become that better self-gradually emerges over the course of the novel, and passages like this one make clear that Jacob is honing his art even when not actively writing.

Vividly evoking both the external realities of post-Communist Prague and the inner life of a young gay writer finding his way, Necessary Errors announces the arrival of a remarkably distinctive voice in contemporary American fiction.

ABOUT CALEB CRAIN

Caleb Crain is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he is the author of the critical work American Sympathy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

A CONVERSATION WITH CALEB CRAIN

Necessary Errors feels like an autobiographical novel? To what extent, and in what ways, does it draw on your own experience?

I spent about a year in Prague two dozen years ago, and the novel draws on my memories, but it's fiction nonetheless. In The Confidence-Man, Melville says that fiction is supposed to "present another world, yet one to which we feel the tie," and I think that's a good way of putting it. A novel should remind a reader of the real world but not be that world.

This is your first full-length novel and a fairly long one. How challenging was it to move from essays, blog posts, reviews, and your novella Sweet Grafton to this longer form? What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing Necessary Errors?

Writing nonfiction feels to me a little bit like putting on a show. I take notes backstage for a while, and then I put on my straw boater, tuck my cane under my arm, and raise the curtain. I'm aware of the fact of the performance. With fiction I'm much less aware of it. The most that I'm aware of is trying to get out of my own way. I'm conscious of making an effort to give myself the time, energy, and peace of mind that I need, but I find it hard to talk about much more than that.

It was indeed a shift to try to write something so much longer. I felt very happy about Sweet Grafton when I finished it, but I soon discovered, to my chagrin, that it's extremely difficult to get a novella published. A novella is too long for most magazines and too short to stand on its own as a book, and I was very lucky that the literary journal n+1 was willing to publish it. When I started Necessary Errors, I didn't want to repeat the mistake, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to control the length any better than I had with Sweet Grafton. Fortunately I happened to read Sybille Bedford's novel A Legacy around the time I was considering this problem, and I realized, "Oh, if you write a few novellas, and they share characters, lo and behold, you've got a novel." I realized I had three stories to tell about Prague, and I was off.

The Vysehrad section of Necessary Errors begins with an epigraph from Henry James, who also wrote about innocents abroad. You and James share a remarkable subtlety of perception. Has he been a major influence on your work? What other writers have been most important for you?

It's kind of you to say so, and probably dangerous for me to hear it. When I wrote Sweet Grafton, I was very taken with a set of mid-twentieth-century novels that are told mostly in dialogue: James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere, Henry Green's Loving, and Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head, among others. When I started Necessary Errors, I still had those books in mind as models, though I was under the impression that I'd be borrowing more this time out from Christopher Isherwood-the way Isherwood turns his historical self into a character, which he can see from the outside as well as remember from the inside. Once I started writing, I noticed that I really enjoyed describing the way Jacob perceived things, even when his perceptions got a little involuted and especially when they were mistaken. I suppose those are the parts that sound Jamesian.

I have to ask a nuts-and-bolt question. How come there are quote marks around some lines of dialogue and dashes in front of others?

I wanted to distinguish between words spoken in English and words spoken in another language but translated into English. Words inside quotation marks are what a character literally said. If a line of dialogue is introduced by a dash, the character said it in another language and the narrator has translated it into English for the reader's convenience.

Tensions rise during a scene where Jacob uses a game of buying and selling things as a language lesson for the children he's tutoring. Did you intend this passage to read as a kind of parable of how capitalism changes the way people relate to each other and to their possessions?

Hmm. I think I intended for the reader to be aware that Jacob is wondering whether his experience has that kind of meaning.

There are parallels in the book between Jacob's identity crisis and the one that the Czechs around him seem to be going through. I think I'm hoping that the reader will see the parallels and also see through them, as it were. Jacob is somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and the Czechs are somewhere between communism and capitalism, but it isn't quite as simple as dependency on the one hand and independence on the other. Capitalism isn't developmentally inevitable after communism, the way that adulthood is after childhood. In fact, the next stage in Czechoslovakia's economic life turned out to be something not quite as benevolent as the capitalism we're familiar with here in America (even allowing for the fact that not everyone thinks of American capitalism as benevolent). Nor is adulthood itself all it's cracked up to be, if you're a young person who wants to grow up to be an artist. The psychologist Erik Erikson came up with the term "psychosocial moratorium" to describe the state of fending off for as long as one can the social definitions and conventional expectations that come with adulthood. The nontechnical name for the state is "bohemia."

Were you influenced by Czech novels?

Not quite as much as I thought I would be. I've learned a great deal from Czech writers over the years. Years ago, I translated a campaign biography about Václav Havel and about half a dozen short stories by other Czech writers, including Josef Skvorecký and Tereza Boucková, and I've written essays about Havel, who's a hero of mine, as well as about Milan Kundera. I've read and loved novels by Jirí Weil, Karel Capek, Ladislav Fuks. Maybe it could be argued that Jacob's innocence owes something to the innocence of some of Bohumil Hrabal's heroes? The third part of my novel is a bit more lyrical than the earlier parts, and at one point, while I was writing it, I found myself reading some Jaroslav Seifert poems in Czech and amateurishly translating them.

But I was also reading my way through Wyatt and Surrey at the time, and though I wish there were more cross-fertilization, I think the reality is that I enjoy Czech literature as a visitor rather than a resident, and that my tradition is the Anglo-American one. Once a Melvillean, always a Melvillean!

Jacob says that he "hates postmodernism" but has "written a story about wanting to live inside a story that's already been written" (p. 276). What is your feeling about postmodernism?

You busted me! This question made me laugh out loud. Can my answer be that I vote to move this question into the discussion section below?

What experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

Reading, writing, and being edited. As a journalist and reviewer, I've had the good luck to work with some very sharp line editors over the years, including Alex Star at Lingua Franca, Caroline Rand Herron at the New York Times Book Review, Barbara Epstein and Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books, Leo Carey at the New Yorker, James Ryerson at the New York Times Magazine, and John Palattella at the Nation. I think that if you're a reasonably self-reflective person, the best way to learn to write is by writing, but it helps immeasurably if you have people with subtle intelligence and years of knowhow reading through your rough drafts.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Why might Caleb Crain have chosen Necessary Errors as the title for his novel? What are the errors the title refers to? In what sense are they necessary?
  • Annie tells Thom, Melinda, and Jacob that she gets quite lost in Thomas Mann's novels. "Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages," she says, "and one doesn't mind somehow" (p. 300). What makes a novel so engaging despite the relative absence of dramatic events or a conventional plot?
  • During their writers' group, Henry observes: "But if every story is about story, then every story must also be about something else, as well, something other than itself, or what are stories for?" (p. 223). In what ways is Necessary Errors about story? In what ways is it about something other than itself? What might that "something other" be?
  • In what ways can Necessary Errors be read as a coming-of-age novel? How does Jacob change and mature over the course of the novel?
  • Jacob and his friends are on the threshold of major transitions in their lives. They're also living in a country in the midst of an enormous historical transition, from communism and authoritarian rule to capitalism, democracy, and greater freedom. How do setting and character reinforce each other in Necessary Errors? In what ways do personal and political freedoms intersect in the novel?
  • What does Jacob learn from his relationship with Lubos? How does he approach his relationship with Milo differently?
  • Much of the pleasure of Necessary Errors comes from reading about the group of friends-Rafe, Melinda, Annie, Thom, Carl, Henry, Kaspar, and others-that surround Jacob. What makes this group so lively and interesting? In what ways are they both distinctive and representative of smart young people just out of college? How do they regard each other and what they have created together?
  • Jacob arrives in Prague heartbroken after breakup of his first gay relationship. He has only been "out" a year. What does the novel reveal about the challenges Jacob faces in navigating the straight world, finding his identity, and learning how to be in a healthy relationship?
  • Just as he begins his journey back to America, Jacob thinks: "What if he had misunderstood himself? What if he wasn't going back for the sake of his ambition? What if his ambition was just a name he gave to a kind of conformity, and he was going back because he wasn't brave enough to live a life that wasn't expected of him, a life so far from any road that there wouldn't be any signposts or milestones" (p. 471)? Does Jacob make the right decision in returning to the United States? Does he do so to fulfill his ambition of becoming a writer or because he isn't brave enough to live an uncharted life?
  • Why does Jacob feel he must wait until he returns to the states to begin his writing life in earnest? Why does he think, as he returns home: "Now, . . . now, now I know what it feels like to go into exile" (p. 472)?
  • What essential qualities does Jacob possess that will help him become the writer he wishes to be?

INTRODUCTION

Set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Caleb Crain's extraordinary debut novel explores the lives and loves of a group of expatriate friends teaching English in Prague. At the center of the group is Jacob Putnam (the hero of Crain's novella Sweet Grafton), freshly graduated from Harvard and just coming out as a gay man. Jacob has traveled to Prague to teach and to give himself a year to develop as a writer before returning to America and the adult responsibilities that await him there. It is a transitional period not just for Jacob and his friends but for the Czech Republic itself, as it shifts from Communism to capitalism and from authoritarian rule to greater political, social, and sexual freedom.

Though he has plenty of time to write, Jacob is not writing. He's still feeling the sting of his rejection by Daniel, a man he had fallen for back in Boston. He's uncertain about how to come out to his straight friends at the language school but determined to take advantage of the new possibilities in Prague and to explore his own emerging identity as a gay man. Early in the novel, Jacob falls in love with Lubos, a handsome Czech engaged in a somewhat mysterious business partnership. The romance ends in disappointment, and Jacob feels that he's learned a painful lesson, which he takes to heart and vows not to repeat, about his own relative innocence in a country that is morally and economically in flux as its people adjust to a new set of rules and expectations.

In many ways, Necessary Errors follows the contours of the traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, tracing the growth from youth to adulthood, innocence to experience, confusion and uncertainty to greater self-knowledge and purpose. But Crain's inward, strongly atmospheric novel eschews a conventional plot and instead lets the lush, impressionistic writing carry the reader along. The book unfolds in episodes that never have the overly tidy feel of serving a schematic purpose, reflecting instead the messiness of life as it actually happens. Jacob and his friends gather at pubs, art galleries, and parties where they have lively, witty, and at times combative conversations about politics, art, literature, and life; they live cheaply, drink copiously, fall in and out of love with each other, and feel an anticipatory nostalgia for deepening friendships they know must soon end.

The real magic of Necessary Errors lies in Crain's exquisite prose, his pitch-perfect ear for smart dialogue, and the subtlety of observation and self-observation that runs throughout the book. Indeed, Jacob's tracking of his and others' shifting emotional states attains a fineness of perception rarely equaled. Of Jacob's relationship with Milo, for example, the narrator observes: "When Milo was around, he wasn't able to hear himself anymore. He was only able to hear what he had to say to Milo. That was the problem with other people; that was the problem with just living your life. He ought to have written a second novel during the time he'd spent in Prague." But Jacob's self-reflection goes several steps further: "He was awfully grand, even in misery, wasn't he. He was feeling the sort of frustration whose pettiness inclines one's better self to wish to dismiss it, if it were possible to" (p. 428). That better self-or the desire to become that better self-gradually emerges over the course of the novel, and passages like this one make clear that Jacob is honing his art even when not actively writing.

Vividly evoking both the external realities of post-Communist Prague and the inner life of a young gay writer finding his way, Necessary Errors announces the arrival of a remarkably distinctive voice in contemporary American fiction.

ABOUT CALEB CRAIN

Caleb Crain is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he is the author of the critical work American Sympathy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

A CONVERSATION WITH CALEB CRAIN

Necessary Errors feels like an autobiographical novel? To what extent, and in what ways, does it draw on your own experience?

I spent about a year in Prague two dozen years ago, and the novel draws on my memories, but it's fiction nonetheless. In The Confidence-Man, Melville says that fiction is supposed to "present another world, yet one to which we feel the tie," and I think that's a good way of putting it. A novel should remind a reader of the real world but not be that world.

This is your first full-length novel and a fairly long one. How challenging was it to move from essays, blog posts, reviews, and your novella Sweet Grafton to this longer form? What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing Necessary Errors?

Writing nonfiction feels to me a little bit like putting on a show. I take notes backstage for a while, and then I put on my straw boater, tuck my cane under my arm, and raise the curtain. I'm aware of the fact of the performance. With fiction I'm much less aware of it. The most that I'm aware of is trying to get out of my own way. I'm conscious of making an effort to give myself the time, energy, and peace of mind that I need, but I find it hard to talk about much more than that.

It was indeed a shift to try to write something so much longer. I felt very happy about Sweet Grafton when I finished it, but I soon discovered, to my chagrin, that it's extremely difficult to get a novella published. A novella is too long for most magazines and too short to stand on its own as a book, and I was very lucky that the literary journal n+1 was willing to publish it. When I started Necessary Errors, I didn't want to repeat the mistake, but I wasn't sure I'd be able to control the length any better than I had with Sweet Grafton. Fortunately I happened to read Sybille Bedford's novel A Legacy around the time I was considering this problem, and I realized, "Oh, if you write a few novellas, and they share characters, lo and behold, you've got a novel." I realized I had three stories to tell about Prague, and I was off.

The Vysehrad section of Necessary Errors begins with an epigraph from Henry James, who also wrote about innocents abroad. You and James share a remarkable subtlety of perception. Has he been a major influence on your work? What other writers have been most important for you?

It's kind of you to say so, and probably dangerous for me to hear it. When I wrote Sweet Grafton, I was very taken with a set of mid-twentieth-century novels that are told mostly in dialogue: James Schuyler's Alfred and Guinevere, Henry Green's Loving, and Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head, among others. When I started Necessary Errors, I still had those books in mind as models, though I was under the impression that I'd be borrowing more this time out from Christopher Isherwood-the way Isherwood turns his historical self into a character, which he can see from the outside as well as remember from the inside. Once I started writing, I noticed that I really enjoyed describing the way Jacob perceived things, even when his perceptions got a little involuted and especially when they were mistaken. I suppose those are the parts that sound Jamesian.

I have to ask a nuts-and-bolt question. How come there are quote marks around some lines of dialogue and dashes in front of others?

I wanted to distinguish between words spoken in English and words spoken in another language but translated into English. Words inside quotation marks are what a character literally said. If a line of dialogue is introduced by a dash, the character said it in another language and the narrator has translated it into English for the reader's convenience.

Tensions rise during a scene where Jacob uses a game of buying and selling things as a language lesson for the children he's tutoring. Did you intend this passage to read as a kind of parable of how capitalism changes the way people relate to each other and to their possessions?

Hmm. I think I intended for the reader to be aware that Jacob is wondering whether his experience has that kind of meaning.

There are parallels in the book between Jacob's identity crisis and the one that the Czechs around him seem to be going through. I think I'm hoping that the reader will see the parallels and also see through them, as it were. Jacob is somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and the Czechs are somewhere between communism and capitalism, but it isn't quite as simple as dependency on the one hand and independence on the other. Capitalism isn't developmentally inevitable after communism, the way that adulthood is after childhood. In fact, the next stage in Czechoslovakia's economic life turned out to be something not quite as benevolent as the capitalism we're familiar with here in America (even allowing for the fact that not everyone thinks of American capitalism as benevolent). Nor is adulthood itself all it's cracked up to be, if you're a young person who wants to grow up to be an artist. The psychologist Erik Erikson came up with the term "psychosocial moratorium" to describe the state of fending off for as long as one can the social definitions and conventional expectations that come with adulthood. The nontechnical name for the state is "bohemia."

Were you influenced by Czech novels?

Not quite as much as I thought I would be. I've learned a great deal from Czech writers over the years. Years ago, I translated a campaign biography about Václav Havel and about half a dozen short stories by other Czech writers, including Josef Skvorecký and Tereza Boucková, and I've written essays about Havel, who's a hero of mine, as well as about Milan Kundera. I've read and loved novels by Jirí Weil, Karel Capek, Ladislav Fuks. Maybe it could be argued that Jacob's innocence owes something to the innocence of some of Bohumil Hrabal's heroes? The third part of my novel is a bit more lyrical than the earlier parts, and at one point, while I was writing it, I found myself reading some Jaroslav Seifert poems in Czech and amateurishly translating them.

But I was also reading my way through Wyatt and Surrey at the time, and though I wish there were more cross-fertilization, I think the reality is that I enjoy Czech literature as a visitor rather than a resident, and that my tradition is the Anglo-American one. Once a Melvillean, always a Melvillean!

Jacob says that he "hates postmodernism" but has "written a story about wanting to live inside a story that's already been written" (p. 276). What is your feeling about postmodernism?

You busted me! This question made me laugh out loud. Can my answer be that I vote to move this question into the discussion section below?

What experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

Reading, writing, and being edited. As a journalist and reviewer, I've had the good luck to work with some very sharp line editors over the years, including Alex Star at Lingua Franca, Caroline Rand Herron at the New York Times Book Review, Barbara Epstein and Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books, Leo Carey at the New Yorker, James Ryerson at the New York Times Magazine, and John Palattella at the Nation. I think that if you're a reasonably self-reflective person, the best way to learn to write is by writing, but it helps immeasurably if you have people with subtle intelligence and years of knowhow reading through your rough drafts.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Why might Caleb Crain have chosen Necessary Errors as the title for his novel? What are the errors the title refers to? In what sense are they necessary?
  • Annie tells Thom, Melinda, and Jacob that she gets quite lost in Thomas Mann's novels. "Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages," she says, "and one doesn't mind somehow" (p. 300). What makes a novel so engaging despite the relative absence of dramatic events or a conventional plot?
  • During their writers' group, Henry observes: "But if every story is about story, then every story must also be about something else, as well, something other than itself, or what are stories for?" (p. 223). In what ways is Necessary Errors about story? In what ways is it about something other than itself? What might that "something other" be?
  • In what ways can Necessary Errors be read as a coming-of-age novel? How does Jacob change and mature over the course of the novel?
  • Jacob and his friends are on the threshold of major transitions in their lives. They're also living in a country in the midst of an enormous historical transition, from communism and authoritarian rule to capitalism, democracy, and greater freedom. How do setting and character reinforce each other in Necessary Errors? In what ways do personal and political freedoms intersect in the novel?
  • What does Jacob learn from his relationship with Lubos? How does he approach his relationship with Milo differently?
  • Much of the pleasure of Necessary Errors comes from reading about the group of friends-Rafe, Melinda, Annie, Thom, Carl, Henry, Kaspar, and others-that surround Jacob. What makes this group so lively and interesting? In what ways are they both distinctive and representative of smart young people just out of college? How do they regard each other and what they have created together?
  • Jacob arrives in Prague heartbroken after breakup of his first gay relationship. He has only been "out" a year. What does the novel reveal about the challenges Jacob faces in navigating the straight world, finding his identity, and learning how to be in a healthy relationship?
  • Just as he begins his journey back to America, Jacob thinks: "What if he had misunderstood himself? What if he wasn't going back for the sake of his ambition? What if his ambition was just a name he gave to a kind of conformity, and he was going back because he wasn't brave enough to live a life that wasn't expected of him, a life so far from any road that there wouldn't be any signposts or milestones" (p. 471)? Does Jacob make the right decision in returning to the United States? Does he do so to fulfill his ambition of becoming a writer or because he isn't brave enough to live an uncharted life?
  • Why does Jacob feel he must wait until he returns to the states to begin his writing life in earnest? Why does he think, as he returns home: "Now, . . . now, now I know what it feels like to go into exile" (p. 472)?
  • What essential qualities does Jacob possess that will help him become the writer he wishes to be?
Read More Show Less

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2013

    I am struggling with this book. Am not halfway through, waiting

    I am struggling with this book. Am not halfway through, waiting for it to get better......it is so darn boring. The plot is blah. The characters are blah. Even the historical aspect is blah. 

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2014

    This was the novel of the year, and has been called that right a

    This was the novel of the year, and has been called that right across the board by the top reviewers. Some comments here are totally off the wall. Google it or else go to that other large online bookseller to see all the reasons why. But here's one: it makes you feel 22 again.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 3, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Author, forgive me

    Fortunately, this author will not depend me for success. I read about 40 pages of this book and wondered why this guy was so boring.

    Perhaps it's a generational thing, could I be too old to find interest in finding a young American go bar hopping through old Europe?

    I found the book grindingly boring.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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