Ingenious...Phillips presents his characters with a wry generosity and haunting poignancy to rival his wonderfully subversive wit.”
—The New York Times
“Wry and skillful...a rare balance of wisdom and imagination.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Stop yearning for that elegant, entertaining novel that used to be. Thanks to Phillips, it’s right here, right now.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“Heartbreaking...a masterpiece of caustic satire.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Really an old-fashioned novel of ideas...very funny...likely to leave you aching, too.”
—The New Yorker
“Few first novels blaze with such all-knowing poise....Phillips is a wisecracking microbiologist of society and spirit.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
At first glance, Arthur Phillips's superb novel reads like an updated version of Ernest Hemingway's classic The Sun Also Rises -- with a healthy dose of Douglas Coupland's Generation X tossed into the mix. Set in eastern Europe after Communism's operatic demise in the early 1990s, this ambitious and exquisitely written debut centers on an eclectic group of young expatriates as they live, love, lie, and drink their way through the dimly lit, paprika-perfumed bars of Budapest.
Budapest? Yes, don’t be fooled by the title -- none of the characters in this novel ever make it to the enchanted city on the Vltava River, the "land of spires and toy palaces and golden painted gates and bridges with sad-eyed statues peering out over misty black water." Budapest, unlike its neighbor to the north, is a city battered by history, pockmarked with bullets, and left by its former occupiers to fade and crumble from time and abuse. Yet it is here that the likes of Charles Gábor, a shrewd financier who is set to grab hold of the fallen city and drag it into the 21st century; John Price, a sensitive, wide-eyed romantic writer; and Emily Oliver, a country bumpkin working at the U.S. embassy (and the object of John's affections) have chosen to live and work out their self-imposed exile.
If Hemingway's characters encapsulated a "Lost Generation," one frustrated and left to feel uncertain about a world literally discombobulated by the horrors of global war, Phillips's sojourners know no such drama. These wanderers are the grandchildren of the "Greatest Generation" -- a new generation insulated and isolated in many ways from world history. And that's where the beauty of Phillips's novel diverges from Hemingway's: How can a group of young, middle-class Americans who have never known oppression ever be anything but spectators in a world emerging from a 50-year prison sentence? They can't. Is Phillips's novel then a whiny talkfest about spoiled rich kids trying to find significance in their ultimately insignificant lives? Not at all. Prague, rich in history and beautifully written, ultimately explores the flight of the human soul toward some kind of truth and reveals that through exile from one's home, country, and history, self-perception can be plucked and ripened like a fruit on a window sill. This is an auspicious debut. (Stephen Bloom)
Prague is one of the best first novels I've read in several years. It is also one of the most challenging, for Arthur Phillips reworks the nineteenth-century international novel, the setting-saturated, character-centered, slow-moving form practiced by Henry James. Readers used to the action-oriented plots that drive much of the contemporary fiction about Americans abroad will need to adjust to the more complex and more subtle intertwining of stories that Phillips presents. Like the old and beautiful city for which the novel is named, Prague requires and rewards leisurely exploration.
Prague opens in Budapest in May 1990. Five North Americans in their mid- to late twenties sit in a cafe and play Sincerity, a game in which each participant makes five statements others have to judge as true or false. What the characters state about themselves and how they respond to their friends set up an immediately interesting dynamic that Phillips complicates and then extends by bringing other people into the initial group. "Somehow this one game of Sincerity becomes the distilled recollection of a much longer series of events," Phillips writes. "It persistently rises to the surface of your memorythat afternoon when you fell in love with a person or a place or a mood, when you savored the power of fooling everyone, when you discovered some great truth about the world."
Charles Gabor, master of Sincerity and insincerity, is a Hungarian-American venture capitalist bottom-feeding in the newly open economy. Mark Payton, who recently earned a doctorate in cultural studies, is passionately committed to his scholarly analysis of nostalgia in different cultures. Emily Oliver, alow-level employee at the American Embassy, says she's incapable of lying. Scott Price, a California health faddist teaching English, is a master of irony. His younger brother John, a recent arrival who becomes a columnist for the English-language newspaper, is Phillips' focal character, a person who oscillates between sincerity and insincerity.
In this novel about the search for authenticity, all five of the main characters have secret desires that move them and the book forward. Charles plots the takeover of a small Hungarian publisher for himself, not for his firm. Mark pursues other men. The wholesome Nebraska-bred Emily has a lesbian liaison. And always-flippant Scott turns out to be seriously engaged with a Hungarian woman.
John Price is more complicated. Although he moons over Emily, he has sex with several other women, including his brother's girlfriend. John follows Mark's lead in studying old Budapest, yet helps Charles plot against the hoary publisher who symbolizes the city's history. Toward the end, the business takeover provides some conventional suspense; but the characters' changing responses to one another and to a closely observed setting are the author's primary interests and, in turn, become the reader's.
Phillips has said he suffers from "hyperglycemic nostalgia," and Prague longs for the "seriousness"a key word in the bookof nineteenth-century fiction. Phillips narrates the story omnisciently and persistently, usually choosing indirect discourse over dialogue. The effect is authorial high seriousness, but with a touch of haughty superiority. The characters don't seem to satisfy their creator, not even the "authentic" Hungarians, not the aged publisher Imre Horvath, not the elderly jazz pianist Nadja. Their history as victims of both Nazis and communists gives them an initial appeal that Phillips diminishes as they become self-promoting windbags, perhaps to impress the outsiders.
If Budapest can't measure up to Prague (a place the characters never go), and if Phillips' characters can't measure up to his ideal of authentic living, I can sayas a part-time resident of a Balkan countrythat Phillips gets just right the eccentricities of an expatriate community. Living at the edge of familiar European culture makes his characters intensely conscious of themselves and their friends. Most enjoy being "exotic" without doing anything to earn that label. English teacher Scott knows no Hungarian and takes pleasure from living outside of language. Several characters suffer from the dread "Visiting Family Syndrome" that takes them away from their friends. Those in the country for six months resent recent arrivals, and anyone with an apartment mocks tourists. In one of the novel's great comic moments, Charles, Mark and John give a student travel writer a mass of specious information about "authentic" Budapest destinations.
Phillips also finds inventive ways of presenting Hungarian history that contrasts with the shallow pasts of his North American characters. The 200-year-old publishing firm, which did business with a succession of governments, represents Hungarian political life. Buildings that the characters live in or move among still have bullet marks from the 1956 "revolution," and the old pianist Nadja tells stories of Hungarians who were frequently forced into exile. Phillips' characters keep saying Budapest is no Prague, but Phillips makes the city as fascinating to readers as Prague is to his characters.
At 380 densely printed pages, Prague is unusually long for a first novel by an unknown writer. To do full justice to its numerous characters, it needed to be longer yet. The Americans compare themselves to the Lost Generation of Americans in Paris in the '20s, but Phillips is too serious a writer to engage in this kind of shortcut, group characterization.
Although Phillips knowsas a resident alien, as a novelistthat authenticity is earned, he or his editor didn't allow Prague the space to fully become what it initially promised to be. But Phillips promises to be a strong new American voice, and Prague is the largest-minded first novel since Mark Z. Danielewski's audacious House of Leaves in 2000.
Everything about this dazzling first novel is utterly original, including the title: it's about a group of young American (and one Canadian) expatriates living in Budapest in 1990, just after the Communist empire has collapsed, and the point of "Prague" is that it's the place everyone would rather be, except they have all somehow settled for Budapest as second best to their idealized Central European city. The author's way of bringing his five central characters onstage is also devilishly clever. They are playing a game invented by Charles Gabor, the only one with a Hungarian background called Sincerity, in which scores are made by telling convincing lies and by seeing through the lies of others. This serves at once to introduce these characters and allows the author to play with their sense of themselves. There is sophisticated, devious Charles, working for a New York investment company seeking newly privatized Hungarian businesses to invest in; Mark, a Canadian intellectual obsessed with the elements of nostalgia (and finding Budapest a rich repository); John, who writes a mordant column on the clashes of the old world and the new for the English-language BudapesToday; John's older brother, Scott, who despises him; and Emily, an apparent innocent from Nebraska who works at the U.S. Embassy. At the heart of the story is Charles's attempt to take over a venerable Hungarian publishing company, whose history is brilliantly sketched and whose aged scion, Imre Horvath, is a quintessential Central European survivor. John nurses a hopeless passion for Emily, becomes involved with a bald-headed collage artist and listens, enchanted, to the tales of an elderly pianist in the group's favorite jazz club. Mark disappears, Scott decamps and the publishing caper ends in disillusionment. But what happens in this novel is not nearly so important as Phillips's wonderful grasp Budapest's look, style and ethos, and his sometimes sympathetic, often scathing view of the Western interlopers. His writing is swift, often poetic, unerringly exact with voices and subtle details of time, place and weather. This novel is so complete a distillation of its theme and characters that it leaves a reader wondering how on earth Phillips can follow it up. Agent, Marly Rusoff. (June 18) Forecast: An introductory note to readers from Random editor Lee Boudreaux eloquently makes the case for this brilliant book, which seems certain to be widely and admiringly reviewed. Likely bookseller enthusiasm as well should help launch it to the position it deserves as the most memorable fiction debut of the year to date. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This audacious first novel is set where else? in Budapest; Prague is simply the place to be, but our protagonists have not been able to get there. What amounts to a plot a term that entails too ordered a progression of events to seem quite right here unfolds in those heady days of 1989-90, right after communism expires in Eastern Europe, and involves a group of young expats (one Canadian, the rest Americans) with overlapping lives. Also present is a distinguished Hungarian survivor of last century's twin horrors, fascism and communism. Despite the often desultory movement of Phillips's characters along the avenues of Pest and across the Danube bridges, with little happening but the disappointment that nothing much is happening, the author commands a sweep of history and a mastery of language that make this debut highly impressive. Phillips's exhilarating exploration of time, memory, and nostalgia brings to mind such giants as Proust and Joyce. A rich, spicy goulash served up to all with an appetite for fine writing and history. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/02.] Edward Cone, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.