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.
July 27, 2012 | by Anna Altman
I recently picked up a copy of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, out last month from Henry Holt, to find a favorite passage. It appeared at the beginning of the novel’s fifth act, or at least it had in the first copy I had read, a Canadian version published by Anansi in September 2010. But flipping through this new edition from Heti’s American publisher, I couldn’t find it. I felt disoriented and wondered if my memory was failing me, and as I looked more closely at the American version, I saw that much else had changed: passages had been deleted or transposed; new characters appeared; objects changed value and form.
After a few minutes of searching, I found the passage I was looking for. It hadn’t changed much between the first publication and the second, but its new placement left me confused, and surprisingly disappointed. I wanted to find the book exactly as I’d left it, and felt the same as Jonathan Franzen, who recently expressed his misgivings about e-books: “When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing—that’s reassuring.” Books often feel like restorative, reliable old friends—and although Heti’s book hadn’t forfeited its material qualities, my assurance of its fixity had been shaken.