by Megan Mills
I started reading Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain on an impromptu road trip to Florida that, despite what my parents might tell you, was entirely my idea. Our flight had gotten cancelled that morning, like nearly every other flight trying to get out of Boston that cold week at the beginning of January. But feeling particularly exceptional, I was set on a different fate. My bitterness at the current predicament and determination to do something about it were tangible in the confinement of the car taking us home from the airport after our failed attempt. The driver voiced his opinion that my reluctance to just sit back and accept our cancelled plans was a result of being spoiled. Glaring at him in the rearview mirror, I thought that I preferred to call it the persistence of youth.
I opened my book hoping it would make our trip down the east coast go by faster and was pleased to find myself in the good company of the novel’s protagonist, Jacob Putnam. Jacob is a recent Harvard graduate, a former English major and current aspiring writer, essentially taking a gap period between undergraduate life and reality by teaching English in Prague in the early 1990s. It’s an impressive resume, no doubt. Yet Jacob feels unaccomplished. He spends his time in Prague visiting monuments and gay bars recommended by his guide book; turning bar discovery into an art form with his fellow expat friends; and desperately trying to capture a moment of historic transition that he has arrived nearly too late for.
That moment is the Velvet Revolution in Prague. It is an event I knew little about. After reading Necessary Errors, I still don’t know much about it. In his review, Norman Rush more confidently explains how well the historical context works with the larger themes and events in the novel. His words clarified feelings I had not been able to articulate. We agreed on some of the novel’s key aspects. Such as the lyricism that is Crain’s writing. Or how there’s not so much a strict plot to the novel, but rather it reads like a sequence of events. We both approved of the author’s use of semi-colons. And Rush helped me come to terms with the lack of details on Jacob’s group of friends that are so important to him and the story. But aspects of the novel that Rush merely touches upon are what drew me in and kept me absorbed in Necessary Errors.
This novel was written for me. Or, more accurately, for people my age. This age is generally summed up as “twenty-something.” More than a number, it is a stage in your life when you are really and truly free and unattached for better or worse and the ideal of endless opportunities vies for attention with the more realistic fear of the unknown. I was in this mindset when I started the novel, as I came across a Buzzfeed article that recommends this book to just this crowd or more specifically “expats teaching abroad, recent college grads, or transplants to a new city where they don’t know anyone.” Feeling connected in one way or another to each of these labels convinced me to read Crain’s first novel.
And I was not disappointed. Crain brings together themes relevant to these labels with poetic grace. Jacob thinks frequently about this point in his life, this moment of transition reinforced by the historical one he hopes to witness in Prague. He captures the transition from youth to so-called maturity perfectly, admitting that “he had a sense that everything in his life up to that point was prelude,” as though what he does now is the real story. The statement resonated with me. At this ambiguous age, I have come to find that things are expected of you. There is unofficial pressure to do something worthwhile, to prove to everyone that you’re putting your expensive, high-end education to use and doing something with your newfound freedom. That you’re beginning your life. This unofficial expectation is cause for Jacob’s concern that he is not out accomplishing. Part of Jacob’s reason for going to Prague was so that he could focus on his writing. In reality, he works on a single story for the two years or so he is in Prague; enough to still call himself a writer but not enough that he feels confident doing so.
Jacob’s reflections on what it means to be abroad are as evocative as his thoughts toward his transitional age. Crain achieves what I view as the greatest achievement of writers – to put to words what readers, strangers really, feel. Throughout Jacob’s time abroad, not only does he feel unaccomplished but he feels like he is wasting his time, as though every moment there must be exceptional. In one mundane instance, Jacob suddenly feels off and he can’t put his finger on exactly why. He tries to explain that “he felt sad and misplaced, with the abrupt, overwhelming, dizzying sadness that comes over people in countries not their own, which has none of the richness of feeling that usually comes with sadness but is rather a kind of exhaustion.” Exactly, I thought when I read this. It was like Crain threw my deepest emotions at me, repackaged under the guise of creative license. Segments of writing such as this are what I found to be the true craft of the novel.
Not to be ignored, though, is the particular poignancy Crain conveys in being an American abroad. Jacob again admits to a realization he is not entirely proud of. While he is in Prague, the United States declares war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. He thinks how this “seemed to prove that the larger world was a setting where America was the principle actor, and therefore, by extension, a setting where Jacob ought to feel at home.” He notes that “a part of him felt ashamed of the grand entitlement that this sense of things implied, but he did not pretend to himself that he didn’t share it.” Being abroad is meant to teach you about yourself and your place in the world; it is another reason why Jacob chooses to live in Prague for an extended time. He searches for a sense of self and place to such an extent that it becomes forced and clichéd.
Nevertheless, as he shows here, he does learn. He learns that Americans possess the same exceptionalism as the young yet has the integrity to acknowledge he does not escape it.
What I loved most about the theme of the American abroad was its air of Hemingway. Rush hints at this in his piece; the idea that Crain is shaping another lost generation. And this is exactly what Jacob and his friends represent: they themselves are lost in that specific period in their lives while the world around them is lost as well. Even more relevant is the idea that Jacob as an American rushes to Prague at a time when the country is striving to discover and realize democracy and capitalism. As in the finest works of Hemingway, the protagonist here must go abroad to realize the American spirit.
Crain’s story enlightened me to the idea that being young and being abroad overlap in extraordinary ways. In both instances, the world lies at your feet and you feel the pressure of needing to do something with it. If you don’t, it feels like a waste. Those of us on the brink of adulthood still retain the optimism and persistence left over from youth that tells us we can accomplish, we can answer these pressures. There is always a destination, a focus away from what Jacob calls “the charmless here.” Belief in a more charmed time and place is what propels us forward in life and out into the world, hoping against everything that where we end up will be worth our efforts.