I haven’t enjoyed a work of contemporary fiction this much in a long time. It’s engrossing, funny, poignant, smart & beautiful. Crain writes for various publications, including The New Yorker, often on topics related to 19th century American literature and culture. He has an interesting blog. This is his first novel. I’m very curious what he’ll do next.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows. A young Irish woman was seated alone in the teacher’s lounge. She had made herself a cup of tea on the range in the corner, and she was opening a tangerine on a paper napkin, with hungry carelessness.
The setting is not Ireland—after all, if it were, the young woman’s nationality wouldn’t need to be named—but Prague. The time, we’ll learn, is almost a year after the Velvet Revolution. The young woman, Annie, is not our protagonist, as we might have expected. That claim goes to Jacob Putnam, introduced laconically in the next paragraph—“one of the American teachers walked in”—and interestingly unnamed for the next couple of pages. In addition to being American, Jacob has just graduated from Harvard and only recently come out, mostly to himself, as gay. Although it’s not immediately apparent in the novel’s initial interaction, Annie will become Jacob’s close friend, a member of the group of young people, mostly foreigners, whom the novel follows. Jacob is always center stage, but the group is important, and one of the book’s many nostalgic pleasures is remembering how people used to meet up and get together (or fail to do so) before we could contact everybody all the time. (Jacob rents a basement suite from a Czech family; the stratagems required to be able to use the family’s phone is a minor, amusing subplot.)
Let’s return to that opening paragraph. Referring to the school where Annie and Jacob and some of the other characters work, a bit desultorily, the novel, already in its first sentence, introduces the topics of communication and language. In so doing, it encourages us think about the book’s own language. The paragraph is representative: here and elsewhere the prose is careful, quiet, syntactically straightforward. The novel is resolutely realist in its depictions. I hope I haven’t made the style sound safe or uninteresting. Crain is not a flashy writer, but he is an elegant, thoughtful, and sometimes sneakily dazzling one.
Consider the marvelous touches apparent in the opening—the use of “batting,” for example, odd not only because it anthropomorphizes the leaves, but also because of what it has the leaves do. We usually say that light shines through leaves. But here the leaves do the work—except it’s gentle, playful work. (The best kind of work, or not work at all?) “Batting” is a funny word: it ought to be violent (most of the things you do with a bat are pretty forceful), but it actually signifies lightness and ease. Those are not qualities we would ascribe to the passage’s final phrase—Annie opens the tangerine with “hungry carelessness.” Whose description is this? The omniscient narrator’s? Mostly there is no such thing; the narration usually hews closely to Jacob’s perspective. (There are only a handful of moments when we know things he doesn’t yet.) But how could this be Jacob’s free indirect discourse when he hasn’t yet entered the room or the novel? Is the description a moment of self-criticism on Annie’s part? Wherever it comes from, the content of the phrase—suggesting abandon, need, urgency—is at odds with the controlled quality of the prose, and it gets at the sense the book’s characters have of having been given the opportunity, by virtue of their privileged Western backgrounds, to live all they can, to devour new opportunity, to enjoy their relative ease in this beautiful city in which they can think endlessly about themselves, each other, art, love, life, etc. Yet even when the characters do things that are hungry or careless or both—when their innocence is disabused, when a lover takes up with another, when they argue, usually out of their depth, about politics—they do so gently, if not always kindly.
At least a few readers seem to agree that the book isn’t like much else in American fiction today, and the decorum, for lack of a better word, of the book’s characters and events—which is real, but which I fear might give the wrong impression of the book as precious or twee—might account for that response. I’m thinking of some of the blurbs on the jacket—though when one of those writers compares this book to Musil’s Törless, a remarkable if disagreeable novel with which Crain’s has absolutely nothing in common, I have to wonder—but also, more substantially, of Norman Rush’s review in the NYRB. Rush has a lot of shrewd things to say, though I think his conviction that the novel is first and foremost about the idea of utopia says more about his own fiction than about Crain’s.
Although I don’t read very much American fiction, I’m inclined to agree the book seems unusual. For one thing, it’s not about America, or, rather, it’s about America in the way Henry James’s novels of Americans abroad are. Which is another way to say that it’s really quite a bit about America, but, more than James, even, it takes seriously the foreign surroundings in which the Americans abroad find themselves. I won’t say too much about James here, partly because I don’t actually know his work that well—enough about The Ambassadors to know that it’s in the background here, a kind of intertext Crain gestures to—but mostly because the book is ahead of me. It references the Master, but suitably ironically: Jacob knows James only through an essay about a famous James’s story that he read in college (never named, but clearly Sedgwick’s “The Beast in the Closet”).
We can see here how delicate and slippery the novel’s presentation of its protagonist is: we are allowed to feel equal to, or possibly a little bit superior to, Jacob, in this moment and others. But we feel for him too. We aren’t asked to look down on him. The book doesn’t have a condescending bone in its body. At the end of the book, on the bus from Prague to Paris, Jacob luxuriates in the dramatic, rather selfish thought: “Now I know what it feels like to go into exile.” He doesn’t—his life has been nothing but privilege and safety. And yet the book doesn’t just make fun of him; Jacob is losing something real here, the sense of possibility afforded him by his time abroad. This is what I mean when I say that the most central thing about this book is its generosity.
Maybe that generosity comes from its sense that books are central to life. In general, it’s a book that loves books. Jacob finds out that he read the same children’s book as a unrepentant Danish Communist with whom he otherwise has nothing in common: “Love for the book lay sudden between them, an awkward intimacy.” Coming across a store filled with English-language books at British prices, Jacob “fell into a reverie of imaginary possession; he was visiting the books in his future library; they were prisoners he could not yet free.” He even meets his Czech lover, the wry, sad, and life-affirming Milo, at a bookstore. (Milo gets a lot of good lines: when Jacob’s pet hamster dies, just days after Jacob finds an exercise wheel for it, Milo suggests it be read “as a warning to Americans.”) But books, as these lines suggest, lead to desire. Desire—sometimes for sex, but more often, in the hungry way of the opening passage, for experience—finds its way into every part of the text. Here are Jacob and his friend Melinda, who experiences perhaps more than anyone else in the book, sitting in a courtyard: “The grass at their feet fluttered, like a boy’s hair being smoothed.” Their conversation is just as poised between comfort and the erotic. Later, when Jacob’s friend Carl, on a visit from the States, meets Melinda, his “silly talk” takes on more flourish than usual: “He seemed to be laying it out for Melinda’s unacknowledged admiration, and perhaps comfort, like a coat over a puddle, to be taken for granted.” I love that coat—to say nothing of that devastating “unacknowledged.”
What does it mean for a book that seems to do everything so right, so elegantly, to be named after things that go wrong? What are necessary errors? Mistakes we can’t help but make? False solutions that turn out to be solutions, such that we’re glad we made them, can’t see how we could have done otherwise? Crain’s title is like his book: a bit opaque, prompting reflection, increasingly pleasing at least for those who find pleasure in mulling things over.
As I’ve said, Jacob and some of the others work as language teachers. Some of the book’s necessary errors are linguistic, the kind that come up when one is learning another language, or when one lives between languages. Jacob is always telling his students what native English speakers typically say, which means he is put in the position, necessarily faintly ridiculous, of correcting others. One of the book’s pleasures is its depiction of the happy distortions of non-native speakers. And that goes both directions. Crain gives us Jacob’s hesitant Czech in a pleasingly formal English (which has something, I gather, to do with the Czech language, and something with Jacob’s haltingness). The inadvertent poetry of the second-language speaker sometimes seems to infect the novel’s own prose, like in the “batting” example from the beginning.
Maybe it’s not surprising I loved the book: in many ways I’m its target audience. Although I’m neither American (yet) nor Harvard-educated nor gay, I was about the same age as the book’s characters when the Wall came down, and I spent the year immediately afterward in Europe (though in Switzerland, so I didn’t experience first hand that sense of dreamy possibility and anxiety Crain depicts so well). And I too wanted to write and didn’t write much and relished the chance that living in a different place gave me to become a different person. But it does Crain’s novel a disservice to talk of a “target audience.” To be out of fashion or out of step with prevailing trends, if that’s in fact was this book is, could of course also be a kind of branding. But I think the novel will appeal to all sorts of readers, especially those who have ever plunged into a foreign country or language. That’s certainly a privileged position to be in, and maybe those not materially fortunate enough to have been able to do their growing up abroad, to say nothing of those who have been forced or chosen to live in a place not their home for a lifetime rather than an extended visit might find this novel a bit precious. But Crain’s sure narrative touch means that the book is always just a little bit more critical of its characters than they are themselves (and they’re hardly narcissists). The striking thing to me—what really separates the book in a good way from the cultural climate of the day, is that its criticism is so kind, so affectionate. Its irony is gently, not scathing, but it cuts all the more deeply for that.
My only visit to Prague was in 1992; the economic and political situation might have solidified a bit from the one depicted in the novel, but my (rather hazy) memory of the city, where I only stayed a few days, was of a place still between things. I remember entering a little grocery. Each aisle—there were only three or four, narrow, not exactly laden with goods, but not bare either—was patrolled by an employee. I reached up to take something from a shelf and received a stern rebuke. Apparently I wasn’t to do that myself. The employee took down whatever it was and placed it in my basket. At the time, I could only think of this as at best bemusing and at worst as inefficient and hopeless. But thanks to Crain’s lovely novel I’m reminded by how little my younger self knew, how clueless he was about the consequences of the changeover for Czechs and Slovaks, how spoiled and sheltered (complaisantly, vaguely bien-pensant liberal though it may have been) his perspective on life was—and yet also how open that younger self was to new experiences, how fearful and yet how brave, how in thrall to the idea that nobody here knows who I am supposed to be, and therefore how not entirely to be condemned from the position of hindsight by the putatively older and wiser self I am today.