Long Live Henry James
Necessary Errors is a well-reviewed literary debut by a gay man, about a gay man. These kinds of novels are rarer than you might think. There’s Alan Hollinghurst, sure, and Peter Cameron, and Michael Cunningham, and Colm Toibin. But the number of major, openly gay, male, literary voices remains depressingly low.
Are English-speaking gay male writers required by law to tip their hats to Henry James? It sometimes seems that way. Toibin wrote a novel about James’s life—The Master. Hollinghurst’s seminal work, The Line of Beauty, features a Henry James scholar. Cunningham has also written about James’s work. And now Crain has honored James by choosing a Jamesean plot for his first novel—the story of an American in Europe. (James was sort of obsessed with this type of plot. Think of The Ambassadors, Portrait of a Lady, and Daisy Miller.)
Crain writes about Jacob Putnam, a recent Harvard grad from Texas. Putnam has vague literary ambitions. He has traveled to Prague to teach English, and also to observe what it’s like to be in a country that has just converted from communism to capitalism. Jacob thinks he may have some things in common with the citizens of Prague. They are experimenting with new freedoms. He is experimenting with freedom, as well—sexual freedom. (It was only several months ago that Jacob began to come out of the closet.)
The Prague of the tail end of the 20th century is beautifully evoked. We learn that breads have only recently been produced with ornamental knots and twists; in the communist regime, the knots were considered frivolous, and the bread was a series of ramrod-straight, doughy batons. It’s rare to observe people expressing impatience toward waiters in restaurants; this kind of honesty toward a fellow laborer is considered rather bold and risqué. Stores tend to charge prices that are reasonable for all consumers; only in Jacob’s final Prague months does he notice some stores becoming exclusively tailored to the wealthy.
Jacob yearns to write, but he doesn’t really succeed. Most of his time is devoted to sightseeing, seducing young men, drinking with friends, and teaching moderately well-organized English lessons (both to adults and children). One day, news arrives that a sensitive, poetically gifted Harvard classmate of Jacob’s has offed herself. This loss provokes Jacob to put some words on a page, but the story doesn’t amount to much. Jacob still feels entitled to call himself a writer when his final Prague boyfriend, Milo, asks.
Though Jacob apparently cannot write, he’s pretty good at getting laid. He uses his guidebook to find a semi-hidden gay bar, but the bouncer won’t let him in. Eventually, he gains access to the bar, and he finds himself entangled with the most handsome man in the room. (It’s one of this novel’s irritating quirks that Jacob, who is clearly a stand-in for the author, is frequently implied to be easy on the eyes. It’s a strange bit of transparent authorial self-regard, and it may not bother every reader.)
Anyway, Jacob has a brief affair with this man, Lubos, then discovers that he (Lubos) is a prostitute. The innocent abroad is no longer so innocent. Isabel Archer is no longer such a wide-eyed young lady.
Jacob almost has a dalliance with a heterosexual male friend, who seems unable to pass up on Jacob’s good looks. There’s also an occasional reference to a devastatingly self-confident ex-boyfriend back home—a man who is clearly a fictional version of Crain’s friend, the famous, conservative, gay blogger Andrew Sullivan. There’s a sassy boy named Ota, who drools all over Jacob. And then there’s Milo, a half-hearted photographer who spends many nights in Jacob’s bed and calls Jacob “an ox”.
When he isn’t on dates, Jacob is often observing his many heterosexual friends. He worries about Annie, a sad, fragile former addict who can’t find love. Carl, a Harvard grad, visits and stays in Jacob’s apartment, and inadvertently contributes to Jacob’s semi-eviction. (Carl falls for a female acquaintance and brings her back to the apartment. The next morning, Jacob escorts Carl’s lover out the door, and Jacob’s landlord, the deeply conservative Mr. Stehlik, objects. The irony is that Jacob is gay—and, also, that Carl has not actually engaged in any kind of intercourse with the young visiting woman. This novel spends quite a bit of time noticing life’s ironies.)
Also, quite beautifully, Crain writes about some of Jacob’s teaching sessions. My favorite passages in the novel concern Jacob’s work with two little kids. The kids are introduced to English terms such as “How much?” and “This is the price.” They become swept up in the excitement of transactions, and they partly forget that they are not actually selling their toys to each other. I love this scene because it reminds the reader that all of us are children, in some ways. We adults become weirdly emotional about money, in the same way that a child might get upset when play-acting a trip to the grocery store. We are all vulnerable and given to flights of fancy, even when we are no longer eight years old.
I also enjoyed the attention Crain pays to the absurdity of language. In Czech, instead of “yes”, you often say, “thus”. I couldn’t get enough of the humorously awkward uses of “thus” sprinkled throughout the pages. You’ll find occasional uses of the question, “Is it pleasing to you?”—and these moments will likely bring a smile to your face. (Imagine if Americans went around asking their friends, “Is my dress pleasing to you? Is this cookie pleasing to you?”) Readers will be reminded of Elif Batuman’s wonderful memoir, The Possessed, which also wrings humor from stilted translations and complex cultural exchanges.
Surreal and lovely scenes abound. A female client tries to thank Jacob by presenting him with a small icon of Christ—completely inappropriate, and also touching. A drunken straight man indirectly declares his love for a friend’s girlfriend by reciting bits of Rosalind’s As You Like It dialogue in a crowded bar. Jacob’s expatriate friends gather on a nude beach and slowly, semi-abashedly shed their clothes, becoming very close to one another just before their lives permanently diverge.
It’s with reluctance, therefore, that I must report there is hardly a plot throughout the nearly 500 pages of this novel. Crain seems aware of this fact. He has his protagonist recall a novel in which nothing happens for many pages, and yet the reader is still transfixed. I was not always transfixed while making my way through Necessary Errors. The length and the meandering quality of the story seemed self-indulgent. I recalled a moment in Anne Lamott’s memoir, Bird by Bird. She has turned in a draft of her first novel, and an editor has rather boldly announced, “You’ve made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting.”
Crain, like the young Lamott, has made this mistake.
Still… I’ll be very honest here. As much as this book can be maddening, it seems to be staying with me—in a good way. I know what it’s like to be adrift in one’s 20s, and to have sensitive, fragile friends, and to think a person is one thing when the person is really something else altogether. Crain did help me to appreciate moments in my own young life—and he made me wish that I could slow down and become more observant.
I’m grateful that he wrote this novel, and it’s likely that I will pick up the next book that he cranks out.