Imaginary Extensions: A Conversation with Caleb Crain
August 6, 2013 | by Anna Altman
This week sees the publication of Caleb Crain’s first novel. Necessary Errors takes place in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution and offers a view of the changes that roiled the city in the early nineties. We see it through the eyes of Jacob, a young American teaching English to support a dilatory life abroad. Prague itself figures prominently in the story: more than a setting, the city’s linguistic currents, architecture, and Communist-tinged daily interactions are portrayed so deftly as to render the city a character itself. Crain is likewise evocative on the granular moments of frustration and incremental clarity that accompany acquiring a language.
Often, a book about a young person going abroad or otherwise finding himself is presented as a string of solitary experiences. Necessary Errors, on the other hand, portrays the alternating feelings of camaraderie and loneliness endemic to group expatriate life, about learning who one is from a diffuse group of people. Ardent, self-conscious, and introverted, Jacob, having only recently discovered that he’s gay, ventures into social life with new purpose. Through his apprehensions and misapprehensions—his necessary errors—the reader gleans not only a vivid group portrait but a sense of the quotidian consequences of the seismic shift from Communism to capitalism.
Last week, I spoke with Crain, an accomplished critic and essayist, over chamomile tea (him) and wine (me) in New York. Crain, too, lived in Prague in 1990 and 1991 and shares qualities with his protagonist (Harvard graduate, gay male, literary aspirations), but he maintains that the work should be understood as fiction. As he explained, expressing his disinterest in the question of how much of fiction comes from lived experience, “The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote that the child’s toy was the precursor to the adult’s field of culture, and he said the one question you’re not suppose to ask the child about the toy is, Does it come from inside or outside? In other words, was the bear born in the hundred-acre wood and did it grow up with the wizard, or did Mommy buy it at Walmart?” Necessary Errors may or may not have benefited from notes scribbled twenty years ago, but the novel is better served by leaving its fictional shell intact, so one might appreciate the writer’s gifts in transporting us to a dynamic social world twenty years removed.
At the beginning of Necessary Errors, Jacob’s friends seem incidental—they are people he’s happened to meet at the school where he teaches, other expats like him—there’s no particular affinity that draws them together. But if there is a primary love story in the novel, it’s with this group of people.
When people are young adults, they have these packs, or tribes, that they form. Those connections are very real, and yet another, more powerful social narrative is that you’re supposed to pair off and have children—and never see your friends again. In the case of the gay world, there’s an additional element, in which you’re supposed to spin away from your straight friends and be part of a gay world. Both ideas of adulthood are sad to me, and I was attracted to a group of friends as a lost paradise, and one that there’s no way to keep.
As a technical matter, with Necessary Errors I wanted to write as much in dialogue as I could. Mikhail Bakhtin was right when he wrote that novels are dialogic texts, where lots of voices come together. Focusing on a group of friends was a way of having lot of different voices. I spoke with somebody who works in TV not long ago, and I discovered that, in television, that kind of arrangement—in which explication happens through dialogue among a certain group—is called a “precinct.” I guess it comes originally from a cop show, but the idea is that there is some social institution that requires a group of people to come back into contact with each other on a regular basis. In between, they have adventures and misfortunes and romances, but at the end of the show they report back to the precinct. It serves to anchor the world of the show. Maybe the group of friends, meeting in their various watering holes, is the precinct of my novel.
In the first part of the book, Jacob spends a lot of time at a gay bar, where he meets a group of young Czech men, and for a while the bar is, to use your term, “the precinct” where much of the novel’s action occurs. Jacob eventually becomes disillusioned with that group and instead finds himself more at home in an expatriate community than an explicitly gay one.
Some of the changes that take place over the course of the book are Jacob’s personal development, and some reflect the developments in Czech society. Initially, Jacob meets most of his gay contemporaries at a bar, but he later meets a young man in a bookstore. It makes far more sense for someone like Jacob to meet someone he likes in a bookstore than in a bar. In Prague at the time, daily transactions, like the way restaurants and retail stores function, were changing rapidly. I wanted to get some of that into the novel and reflect those changes in the possible ways Jacob might meet men.
The middle portion of the novel is driven by a romance between two friends who meet through Jacob. Jacob still narrates, but he tells his story of their story. To have Jacob as the chronicler of this group but also of this couple offers an unusual portrait of how romance or coupling off impacts a group of friends. How did you conceive of the novel as one told through the eyes of this one character, when it’s in fact so much about two other people and their love story?
Jacob was a character who came naturally to me—it’s not a stretch for me to write about an over-serious young gay man who reads too many books and has too many theories about the world. The interesting thing is how to bring in other characters. Jacob keeps bumping into the fact that other people are in the world—and he keeps falling in love with them—and through them he’s discovering the world. There were two books I had in mind in this regard. One was The Great Gatsby, and how Nick Carraway falls in love with Gatsby and Daisy. The other is The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley. It’s a British novel about a child who’s probably gay—it’s never made explicit in the book—who acts as the intermediary between two adults who are having an affair. It suits his emergent sexuality to play this role, and as the reader, you see the affair that the adults are having, but you experience it through its emotional effect on this twelve-year-old boy who has strong identifications and desires for both the man and the woman.
Jacob arrives in Prague nursing wounds from a previous relationship and a primary focus of his time in Prague is to gain more experience dating men. From watching his friends’ romantic entanglements, Jacob thinks he’s learned that the next time that he becomes romantically involved he should be selfish, even cruel.
I wanted the reader to see Jacob and also to see through him. Each section of the book tells a story about the lesson that Jacob thinks he has learned, which he then precedes to misapply in the section that follows. And yet I think I also wanted the reader to think that there’s still something to each lesson, even if he bungles it. Some of his need to be selfish, which he’s learned in part two, he misunderstands as … Well, I mean, I want to say misunderstands, but in real life you do have to be a little selfish in order to survive. And you can’t have adult love without an awareness that it could end.
Jacob has aspirations to be a writer but he spends very little time actually writing. In one scene, Jacob cancels a social engagement so that he can write, and he agonizes over hurting his date’s feelings and over whether he had to do so in order to write. Jacob seems to need to set limits about how long he would stay in Prague in order to make the most of what he does there. But what kept him from writing all of that time?
I think Jacob felt he would need to leave because he feels like he has to be an adult. And I don’t think he understands how a certain idea of being an adult is at war with what he actually wants out of life. In the meantime, though, he isn’t writing, because he’s just living his life. The reader does see him try to write, and I was hoping in those scenes to give a glimpse of why it was difficult for him to make any progress at that point. But I can say—and this is a little bit outside the novel, and something that Jacob doesn’t really see—that his recent discovery that he is gay is probably a major part of why it’s hard for him to do what he wants to do at this point. He’s still integrating his own personality. When you write, you use your personality and its different imaginary extensions to express yourself in words. But if there are still deep fissures in who you are, it’s not clear that you could really tell a coherent story yet. Jacob isn’t even aware of all of the fissures in his own self, at this point.
I thought the lesson that he learned—that you have to be selfish and learn to demand things for yourself—was a necessary prerequisite for him being able to write. He had to recognize his desires in order to ask for the circumstances in which they can be fulfilled. And that was a lesson he had to learn over the course of the novel.
And then there’s another lesson after that! After that, you realize there are other people in the world and that the desire to write doesn’t have to mean disappointing or excluding them. The question is, how does one integrate those two desires?