Reading Guide

Necessary Errors

Necessary Errors

INTRODUCTION

Set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Caleb Crain’s extraordinary debut novel explores the lives and loves of a group of expatriate friends teaching English in Prague. At the center of the group is Jacob Putnam (the hero of Crain’s novella Sweet Grafton), freshly graduated from Harvard and just coming out as a gay man. Jacob has traveled to Prague to teach and to give himself a year to develop as a writer before returning to America and the adult responsibilities that await him there. It is a transitional period not just for Jacob and his friends but for the Czech Republic itself, as it shifts from Communism to capitalism and from authoritarian rule to greater political, social, and sexual freedom.

Though he has plenty of time to write, Jacob is not writing. He’s still feeling the sting of his rejection by Daniel, a man he had fallen for back in Boston. He’s uncertain about how to come out to his straight friends at the language school but determined to take advantage of the new possibilities in Prague and to explore his own emerging identity as a gay man. Early in the novel, Jacob falls in love with Lubos, a handsome Czech engaged in a somewhat mysterious business partnership. The romance ends in disappointment, and Jacob feels that he’s learned a painful lesson, which he takes to heart and vows not to repeat, about his own relative innocence in a country that is morally and economically in flux as its people adjust to a new set of rules and expectations.

In many ways, Necessary Errors follows the contours of the traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, tracing the growth from youth to adulthood, innocence to experience, confusion and uncertainty to greater self-knowledge and purpose. But Crain’s inward, strongly atmospheric novel eschews a conventional plot and instead lets the lush, impressionistic writing carry the reader along. The book unfolds in episodes that never have the overly tidy feel of serving a schematic purpose, reflecting instead the messiness of life as it actually happens. Jacob and his friends gather at pubs, art galleries, and parties where they have lively, witty, and at times combative conversations about politics, art, literature, and life; they live cheaply, drink copiously, fall in and out of love with each other, and feel an anticipatory nostalgia for deepening friendships they know must soon end.

The real magic of Necessary Errors lies in Crain’s exquisite prose, his pitch-perfect ear for smart dialogue, and the subtlety of observation and self-observation that runs throughout the book. Indeed, Jacob’s tracking of his and others’ shifting emotional states attains a fineness of perception rarely equaled. Of Jacob’s relationship with Milo, for example, the narrator observes: “When Milo was around, he wasn’t able to hear himself anymore. He was only able to hear what he had to say to Milo. That was the problem with other people; that was the problem with just living your life. He ought to have written a second novel during the time he’d spent in Prague.” But Jacob’s self-reflection goes several steps further: “He was awfully grand, even in misery, wasn’t he. He was feeling the sort of frustration whose pettiness inclines one’s better self to wish to dismiss it, if it were possible to” (p. 428). That better self-or the desire to become that better self-gradually emerges over the course of the novel, and passages like this one make clear that Jacob is honing his art even when not actively writing.

Vividly evoking both the external realities of post-Communist Prague and the inner life of a young gay writer finding his way, Necessary Errors announces the arrival of a remarkably distinctive voice in contemporary American fiction.

ABOUT CALEB CRAIN

Caleb Crain is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he is the author of the critical work American Sympathy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

A CONVERSATION WITH CALEB CRAIN

Necessary Errors feels like an autobiographical novel? To what extent, and in what ways, does it draw on your own experience?

I spent about a year in Prague two dozen years ago, and the novel draws on my memories, but it’s fiction nonetheless. In The Confidence-Man, Melville says that fiction is supposed to “present another world, yet one to which we feel the tie,” and I think that’s a good way of putting it. A novel should remind a reader of the real world but not be that world.

This is your first full-length novel and a fairly long one. How challenging was it to move from essays, blog posts, reviews, and your novella Sweet Grafton to this longer form? What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing Necessary Errors?

Writing nonfiction feels to me a little bit like putting on a show. I take notes backstage for a while, and then I put on my straw boater, tuck my cane under my arm, and raise the curtain. I’m aware of the fact of the performance. With fiction I’m much less aware of it. The most that I’m aware of is trying to get out of my own way. I’m conscious of making an effort to give myself the time, energy, and peace of mind that I need, but I find it hard to talk about much more than that.

It was indeed a shift to try to write something so much longer. I felt very happy about Sweet Grafton when I finished it, but I soon discovered, to my chagrin, that it’s extremely difficult to get a novella published. A novella is too long for most magazines and too short to stand on its own as a book, and I was very lucky that the literary journal n+1 was willing to publish it. When I started Necessary Errors, I didn’t want to repeat the mistake, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to control the length any better than I had with Sweet Grafton. Fortunately I happened to read Sybille Bedford’s novel A Legacy around the time I was considering this problem, and I realized, “Oh, if you write a few novellas, and they share characters, lo and behold, you’ve got a novel.” I realized I had three stories to tell about Prague, and I was off.

The Vysehrad section of Necessary Errors begins with an epigraph from Henry James, who also wrote about innocents abroad. You and James share a remarkable subtlety of perception. Has he been a major influence on your work? What other writers have been most important for you?

It’s kind of you to say so, and probably dangerous for me to hear it. When I wrote Sweet Grafton, I was very taken with a set of mid-twentieth-century novels that are told mostly in dialogue: James Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere, Henry Green’s Loving, and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head, among others. When I started Necessary Errors, I still had those books in mind as models, though I was under the impression that I’d be borrowing more this time out from Christopher Isherwood-the way Isherwood turns his historical self into a character, which he can see from the outside as well as remember from the inside. Once I started writing, I noticed that I really enjoyed describing the way Jacob perceived things, even when his perceptions got a little involuted and especially when they were mistaken. I suppose those are the parts that sound Jamesian.

I have to ask a nuts-and-bolt question. How come there are quote marks around some lines of dialogue and dashes in front of others?

I wanted to distinguish between words spoken in English and words spoken in another language but translated into English. Words inside quotation marks are what a character literally said. If a line of dialogue is introduced by a dash, the character said it in another language and the narrator has translated it into English for the reader’s convenience.

Tensions rise during a scene where Jacob uses a game of buying and selling things as a language lesson for the children he’s tutoring. Did you intend this passage to read as a kind of parable of how capitalism changes the way people relate to each other and to their possessions?

Hmm. I think I intended for the reader to be aware that Jacob is wondering whether his experience has that kind of meaning.

There are parallels in the book between Jacob’s identity crisis and the one that the Czechs around him seem to be going through. I think I’m hoping that the reader will see the parallels and also see through them, as it were. Jacob is somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and the Czechs are somewhere between communism and capitalism, but it isn’t quite as simple as dependency on the one hand and independence on the other. Capitalism isn’t developmentally inevitable after communism, the way that adulthood is after childhood. In fact, the next stage in Czechoslovakia’s economic life turned out to be something not quite as benevolent as the capitalism we’re familiar with here in America (even allowing for the fact that not everyone thinks of American capitalism as benevolent). Nor is adulthood itself all it’s cracked up to be, if you’re a young person who wants to grow up to be an artist. The psychologist Erik Erikson came up with the term “psychosocial moratorium” to describe the state of fending off for as long as one can the social definitions and conventional expectations that come with adulthood. The nontechnical name for the state is “bohemia.”

Were you influenced by Czech novels?

Not quite as much as I thought I would be. I’ve learned a great deal from Czech writers over the years. Years ago, I translated a campaign biography about Václav Havel and about half a dozen short stories by other Czech writers, including Josef Skvorecký and Tereza Boucková, and I’ve written essays about Havel, who’s a hero of mine, as well as about Milan Kundera. I’ve read and loved novels by Jirí Weil, Karel Capek, Ladislav Fuks. Maybe it could be argued that Jacob’s innocence owes something to the innocence of some of Bohumil Hrabal’s heroes? The third part of my novel is a bit more lyrical than the earlier parts, and at one point, while I was writing it, I found myself reading some Jaroslav Seifert poems in Czech and amateurishly translating them.

But I was also reading my way through Wyatt and Surrey at the time, and though I wish there were more cross-fertilization, I think the reality is that I enjoy Czech literature as a visitor rather than a resident, and that my tradition is the Anglo-American one. Once a Melvillean, always a Melvillean!

Jacob says that he “hates postmodernism” but has “written a story about wanting to live inside a story that’s already been written” (p. 276). What is your feeling about postmodernism?

You busted me! This question made me laugh out loud. Can my answer be that I vote to move this question into the discussion section below?

What experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

Reading, writing, and being edited. As a journalist and reviewer, I’ve had the good luck to work with some very sharp line editors over the years, including Alex Star at Lingua Franca, Caroline Rand Herron at the New York Times Book Review, Barbara Epstein and Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books, Leo Carey at the New Yorker, James Ryerson at the New York Times Magazine, and John Palattella at the Nation. I think that if you’re a reasonably self-reflective person, the best way to learn to write is by writing, but it helps immeasurably if you have people with subtle intelligence and years of knowhow reading through your rough drafts.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why might Caleb Crain have chosen Necessary Errors as the title for his novel? What are the errors the title refers to? In what sense are they necessary?

  2. Annie tells Thom, Melinda, and Jacob that she gets quite lost in Thomas Mann’s novels. “Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages,” she says, “and one doesn’t mind somehow” (p. 300). What makes a novel so engaging despite the relative absence of dramatic events or a conventional plot?

  3. During their writers’ group, Henry observes: “But if every story is about story, then every story must also be about something else, as well, something other than itself, or what are stories for?” (p. 223). In what ways is Necessary Errors about story? In what ways is it about something other than itself? What might that “something other” be?

  4. In what ways can Necessary Errors be read as a coming-of-age novel? How does Jacob change and mature over the course of the novel?

  5. Jacob and his friends are on the threshold of major transitions in their lives. They’re also living in a country in the midst of an enormous historical transition, from communism and authoritarian rule to capitalism, democracy, and greater freedom. How do setting and character reinforce each other in Necessary Errors? In what ways do personal and political freedoms intersect in the novel?

  6. What does Jacob learn from his relationship with Lubos? How does he approach his relationship with Milo differently?

  7. Much of the pleasure of Necessary Errors comes from reading about the group of friends-Rafe, Melinda, Annie, Thom, Carl, Henry, Kaspar, and others-that surround Jacob. What makes this group so lively and interesting? In what ways are they both distinctive and representative of smart young people just out of college? How do they regard each other and what they have created together?

  8. Jacob arrives in Prague heartbroken after breakup of his first gay relationship. He has only been “out” a year. What does the novel reveal about the challenges Jacob faces in navigating the straight world, finding his identity, and learning how to be in a healthy relationship?

  9. Just as he begins his journey back to America, Jacob thinks: “What if he had misunderstood himself? What if he wasn’t going back for the sake of his ambition? What if his ambition was just a name he gave to a kind of conformity, and he was going back because he wasn’t brave enough to live a life that wasn’t expected of him, a life so far from any road that there wouldn’t be any signposts or milestones” (p. 471)? Does Jacob make the right decision in returning to the United States? Does he do so to fulfill his ambition of becoming a writer or because he isn’t brave enough to live an uncharted life?

  10. Why does Jacob feel he must wait until he returns to the states to begin his writing life in earnest? Why does he think, as he returns home: “Now, . . . now, now I know what it feels like to go into exile” (p. 472)?

  11. What essential qualities does Jacob possess that will help him become the writer he wishes to be?

INTRODUCTION

Set in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Caleb Crain’s extraordinary debut novel explores the lives and loves of a group of expatriate friends teaching English in Prague. At the center of the group is Jacob Putnam (the hero of Crain’s novella Sweet Grafton), freshly graduated from Harvard and just coming out as a gay man. Jacob has traveled to Prague to teach and to give himself a year to develop as a writer before returning to America and the adult responsibilities that await him there. It is a transitional period not just for Jacob and his friends but for the Czech Republic itself, as it shifts from Communism to capitalism and from authoritarian rule to greater political, social, and sexual freedom.

Though he has plenty of time to write, Jacob is not writing. He’s still feeling the sting of his rejection by Daniel, a man he had fallen for back in Boston. He’s uncertain about how to come out to his straight friends at the language school but determined to take advantage of the new possibilities in Prague and to explore his own emerging identity as a gay man. Early in the novel, Jacob falls in love with Lubos, a handsome Czech engaged in a somewhat mysterious business partnership. The romance ends in disappointment, and Jacob feels that he’s learned a painful lesson, which he takes to heart and vows not to repeat, about his own relative innocence in a country that is morally and economically in flux as its people adjust to a new set of rules and expectations.

In many ways, Necessary Errors follows the contours of the traditional bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, tracing the growth from youth to adulthood, innocence to experience, confusion and uncertainty to greater self-knowledge and purpose. But Crain’s inward, strongly atmospheric novel eschews a conventional plot and instead lets the lush, impressionistic writing carry the reader along. The book unfolds in episodes that never have the overly tidy feel of serving a schematic purpose, reflecting instead the messiness of life as it actually happens. Jacob and his friends gather at pubs, art galleries, and parties where they have lively, witty, and at times combative conversations about politics, art, literature, and life; they live cheaply, drink copiously, fall in and out of love with each other, and feel an anticipatory nostalgia for deepening friendships they know must soon end.

The real magic of Necessary Errors lies in Crain’s exquisite prose, his pitch-perfect ear for smart dialogue, and the subtlety of observation and self-observation that runs throughout the book. Indeed, Jacob’s tracking of his and others’ shifting emotional states attains a fineness of perception rarely equaled. Of Jacob’s relationship with Milo, for example, the narrator observes: “When Milo was around, he wasn’t able to hear himself anymore. He was only able to hear what he had to say to Milo. That was the problem with other people; that was the problem with just living your life. He ought to have written a second novel during the time he’d spent in Prague.” But Jacob’s self-reflection goes several steps further: “He was awfully grand, even in misery, wasn’t he. He was feeling the sort of frustration whose pettiness inclines one’s better self to wish to dismiss it, if it were possible to” (p. 428). That better self-or the desire to become that better self-gradually emerges over the course of the novel, and passages like this one make clear that Jacob is honing his art even when not actively writing.

Vividly evoking both the external realities of post-Communist Prague and the inner life of a young gay writer finding his way, Necessary Errors announces the arrival of a remarkably distinctive voice in contemporary American fiction.

ABOUT CALEB CRAIN

Caleb Crain is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, the Paris Review Daily, and the New York Times Book Review. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia, he is the author of the critical work American Sympathy. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

A CONVERSATION WITH CALEB CRAIN

Necessary Errors feels like an autobiographical novel? To what extent, and in what ways, does it draw on your own experience?

I spent about a year in Prague two dozen years ago, and the novel draws on my memories, but it’s fiction nonetheless. In The Confidence-Man, Melville says that fiction is supposed to “present another world, yet one to which we feel the tie,” and I think that’s a good way of putting it. A novel should remind a reader of the real world but not be that world.

This is your first full-length novel and a fairly long one. How challenging was it to move from essays, blog posts, reviews, and your novella Sweet Grafton to this longer form? What was the most enjoyable aspect of writing Necessary Errors?

Writing nonfiction feels to me a little bit like putting on a show. I take notes backstage for a while, and then I put on my straw boater, tuck my cane under my arm, and raise the curtain. I’m aware of the fact of the performance. With fiction I’m much less aware of it. The most that I’m aware of is trying to get out of my own way. I’m conscious of making an effort to give myself the time, energy, and peace of mind that I need, but I find it hard to talk about much more than that.

It was indeed a shift to try to write something so much longer. I felt very happy about Sweet Grafton when I finished it, but I soon discovered, to my chagrin, that it’s extremely difficult to get a novella published. A novella is too long for most magazines and too short to stand on its own as a book, and I was very lucky that the literary journal n+1 was willing to publish it. When I started Necessary Errors, I didn’t want to repeat the mistake, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to control the length any better than I had with Sweet Grafton. Fortunately I happened to read Sybille Bedford’s novel A Legacy around the time I was considering this problem, and I realized, “Oh, if you write a few novellas, and they share characters, lo and behold, you’ve got a novel.” I realized I had three stories to tell about Prague, and I was off.

The Vysehrad section of Necessary Errors begins with an epigraph from Henry James, who also wrote about innocents abroad. You and James share a remarkable subtlety of perception. Has he been a major influence on your work? What other writers have been most important for you?

It’s kind of you to say so, and probably dangerous for me to hear it. When I wrote Sweet Grafton, I was very taken with a set of mid-twentieth-century novels that are told mostly in dialogue: James Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere, Henry Green’s Loving, and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head, among others. When I started Necessary Errors, I still had those books in mind as models, though I was under the impression that I’d be borrowing more this time out from Christopher Isherwood-the way Isherwood turns his historical self into a character, which he can see from the outside as well as remember from the inside. Once I started writing, I noticed that I really enjoyed describing the way Jacob perceived things, even when his perceptions got a little involuted and especially when they were mistaken. I suppose those are the parts that sound Jamesian.

I have to ask a nuts-and-bolt question. How come there are quote marks around some lines of dialogue and dashes in front of others?

I wanted to distinguish between words spoken in English and words spoken in another language but translated into English. Words inside quotation marks are what a character literally said. If a line of dialogue is introduced by a dash, the character said it in another language and the narrator has translated it into English for the reader’s convenience.

Tensions rise during a scene where Jacob uses a game of buying and selling things as a language lesson for the children he’s tutoring. Did you intend this passage to read as a kind of parable of how capitalism changes the way people relate to each other and to their possessions?

Hmm. I think I intended for the reader to be aware that Jacob is wondering whether his experience has that kind of meaning.

There are parallels in the book between Jacob’s identity crisis and the one that the Czechs around him seem to be going through. I think I’m hoping that the reader will see the parallels and also see through them, as it were. Jacob is somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and the Czechs are somewhere between communism and capitalism, but it isn’t quite as simple as dependency on the one hand and independence on the other. Capitalism isn’t developmentally inevitable after communism, the way that adulthood is after childhood. In fact, the next stage in Czechoslovakia’s economic life turned out to be something not quite as benevolent as the capitalism we’re familiar with here in America (even allowing for the fact that not everyone thinks of American capitalism as benevolent). Nor is adulthood itself all it’s cracked up to be, if you’re a young person who wants to grow up to be an artist. The psychologist Erik Erikson came up with the term “psychosocial moratorium” to describe the state of fending off for as long as one can the social definitions and conventional expectations that come with adulthood. The nontechnical name for the state is “bohemia.”

Were you influenced by Czech novels?

Not quite as much as I thought I would be. I’ve learned a great deal from Czech writers over the years. Years ago, I translated a campaign biography about Václav Havel and about half a dozen short stories by other Czech writers, including Josef Skvorecký and Tereza Boucková, and I’ve written essays about Havel, who’s a hero of mine, as well as about Milan Kundera. I’ve read and loved novels by Jirí Weil, Karel Capek, Ladislav Fuks. Maybe it could be argued that Jacob’s innocence owes something to the innocence of some of Bohumil Hrabal’s heroes? The third part of my novel is a bit more lyrical than the earlier parts, and at one point, while I was writing it, I found myself reading some Jaroslav Seifert poems in Czech and amateurishly translating them.

But I was also reading my way through Wyatt and Surrey at the time, and though I wish there were more cross-fertilization, I think the reality is that I enjoy Czech literature as a visitor rather than a resident, and that my tradition is the Anglo-American one. Once a Melvillean, always a Melvillean!

Jacob says that he “hates postmodernism” but has “written a story about wanting to live inside a story that’s already been written” (p. 276). What is your feeling about postmodernism?

You busted me! This question made me laugh out loud. Can my answer be that I vote to move this question into the discussion section below?

What experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

Reading, writing, and being edited. As a journalist and reviewer, I’ve had the good luck to work with some very sharp line editors over the years, including Alex Star at Lingua Franca, Caroline Rand Herron at the New York Times Book Review, Barbara Epstein and Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books, Leo Carey at the New Yorker, James Ryerson at the New York Times Magazine, and John Palattella at the Nation. I think that if you’re a reasonably self-reflective person, the best way to learn to write is by writing, but it helps immeasurably if you have people with subtle intelligence and years of knowhow reading through your rough drafts.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why might Caleb Crain have chosen Necessary Errors as the title for his novel? What are the errors the title refers to? In what sense are they necessary?

  2. Annie tells Thom, Melinda, and Jacob that she gets quite lost in Thomas Mann’s novels. “Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages,” she says, “and one doesn’t mind somehow” (p. 300). What makes a novel so engaging despite the relative absence of dramatic events or a conventional plot?

  3. During their writers’ group, Henry observes: “But if every story is about story, then every story must also be about something else, as well, something other than itself, or what are stories for?” (p. 223). In what ways is Necessary Errors about story? In what ways is it about something other than itself? What might that “something other” be?

  4. In what ways can Necessary Errors be read as a coming-of-age novel? How does Jacob change and mature over the course of the novel?

  5. Jacob and his friends are on the threshold of major transitions in their lives. They’re also living in a country in the midst of an enormous historical transition, from communism and authoritarian rule to capitalism, democracy, and greater freedom. How do setting and character reinforce each other in Necessary Errors? In what ways do personal and political freedoms intersect in the novel?

  6. What does Jacob learn from his relationship with Lubos? How does he approach his relationship with Milo differently?

  7. Much of the pleasure of Necessary Errors comes from reading about the group of friends-Rafe, Melinda, Annie, Thom, Carl, Henry, Kaspar, and others-that surround Jacob. What makes this group so lively and interesting? In what ways are they both distinctive and representative of smart young people just out of college? How do they regard each other and what they have created together?

  8. Jacob arrives in Prague heartbroken after breakup of his first gay relationship. He has only been “out” a year. What does the novel reveal about the challenges Jacob faces in navigating the straight world, finding his identity, and learning how to be in a healthy relationship?

  9. Just as he begins his journey back to America, Jacob thinks: “What if he had misunderstood himself? What if he wasn’t going back for the sake of his ambition? What if his ambition was just a name he gave to a kind of conformity, and he was going back because he wasn’t brave enough to live a life that wasn’t expected of him, a life so far from any road that there wouldn’t be any signposts or milestones” (p. 471)? Does Jacob make the right decision in returning to the United States? Does he do so to fulfill his ambition of becoming a writer or because he isn’t brave enough to live an uncharted life?

  10. Why does Jacob feel he must wait until he returns to the states to begin his writing life in earnest? Why does he think, as he returns home: “Now, . . . now, now I know what it feels like to go into exile” (p. 472)?

  11. What essential qualities does Jacob possess that will help him become the writer he wishes to be?
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