this debut novel by Caleb Crain, Necessary Errors...is far more than another tale of a gay man’s self-discovery. With delicate prose and probing insight, Crain touches upon an array of universally felt and emotionally fraught issues ... Necessary Errors is not a quick read, and it has been criticised by some for being quite slow-paced. But that is precisely its beauty. It is a book that shines in its ability to map our complex human emotional landscape. Furthermore, while long, the narrative doesn’t drag. Crain’s careful prose gives the sense that each word serves a purpose, that nothing is superfluous. Crain has gifted us a novel of incredible beauty and clarity ... Given the weight behind his words, it is clear that Crain has...poured himself into this first work. Necessary Errors is an epic achievement that transcends the former limitations of the gay-coming-of-age genre–it is a novel of breathtaking humanity that teaches as well as entertains.
...a bildungsroman, very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed ... certain qualities of Necessary Errors stand counter to fashions prevailing in successful contemporary literary fiction. Crain uses the semicolon. The tale-telling is unusually leisurely. The scenes and exchanges of dialogue can run long. Even though the quest for love and sex is at the heart of things, the recounting of physical incidents is decorous, even chaste. The story is nonviolent and antipicaresque ... There are no epiphanies, no life-altering changes of consciousness ... Necessary Errors works ... Plot seems a coarse term to apply to the sequence of events dramatized here ... Jacob’s group is fun to watch. Not for surprise or suspense or the reversals of fortune one associates with vigorous plotting. There’s none of that. But the particularities of the group are brilliantly caught ... This novel probes deeply in an unexpectedly playful manner into some fundamental matters: love, friendship, solidarity, vocation, the pursuit of truth. Crain writes with skill and grace, and with restraint ... We’re not through with narratives about the Getting of Wisdom, Americans Abroad, Coming of Age, Gay Coming of Age, New Lost Generations. Among such works, a new narrative will be measured against Caleb Crain’s fine book, which will endure as a powerful entry in the great fictional exploration of the meanings of liberation.
At 472 pages, it’s not quite a tome, perhaps, but it recalls the dreamy pacing of Henry James or Elizabeth Bowen ... Necessary Errors is a bildungsroman, but it’s about the coming of age of these friends as well as Jacob, who needs them badly ... There is, in fact, a general haze that surrounds the novel (and perhaps your early 20s as well). If nothing really happens, it does so deliberately ... Crain’s ability to keep our interest without an obvious narrative arc, to make us care, intensely, about his characters without any cat-saving or cliffhangers, is what makes the novel feel like a new sort of model for contemporary fiction ... Crain has managed to write a moving and involving story about someone trying to find not just his own story, but his own voice as well. There are no dramatic flashes, no so-called twist endings ... Crain does end—no spoilers—on a cliffhanger of sorts. This, another kind of reader might think, is where the real story begins. We, though, for having read Necessary Errors, understand that the realness of a story should not be judged by 'what happened.' Plot cannot be the most crucial element to storytelling, when the ways of telling a story are infinite.
I began reading it, I’ll admit, in a parched spirit of competitive calculation: let it be good, but not so good that I must envy it. Yet Necessary Errors is a very good novel, an enviably good one, and to read it is to relive all the anxieties and illusions and grand projects of one’s own youth. To experience again those awkward, joyous ambitions in a fictional work so consummately the achievement of them was, for me, a complicated, rueful pleasure ... Like Jacob, Crain was living in Prague in 1990 and 1991, and he seems to have re-created, with extraordinary fidelity, the texture of everyday life in a society embarking on a long journey of transformation ... Necessary Errors is an achievement of detailed recollection, and as such has a dense, realistic heft. But its true spirit is closer to Henry James ...than to documenters like Balzac or Howells. If Crain is a patient painter of furniture and food and weather, he is a pointillist of human motive and interaction, systematically capturing elusive and fugitive feeling ... feelingly unemphatic, light on its moral feet. Unlike much contemporary American writing, the prose eschews glitter and exhibitionism in favor of a limpid evenness. But the clarity of this lucid prose is often lyrical, not just prosaic.
...Caleb Crain brings [Prague] vividly to life with his gently meandering debut novel ... Crain wonderfully evokes the novel’s setting in a few deft strokes. He’s a master of the thumbnail character sketch, populating his novel with memorable supporting characters ... he captures the slow pace of life of his innocents abroad, whose biggest adventure is choosing a bar for a drink ... The book’s success in recreating the languid rhythms of its characters’ social lives is also its biggest stumbling block ... Affairs begin, break off and begin again with new partners. Yet for all this activity, the characters don’t seem to learn much or change in any significant way. The book is rich in anecdote but impoverished in its overall purpose — or what is known in less literary circles as plot. A series of charming vignettes might have worked better in a shorter book, but the aimlessness becomes wearying over nearly 500 pages. More crucially, as a main character, Jacob isn’t quite dynamic enough to hold the reader’s attention ...Young people of Jacob’s age and situation are often unclear on who they are and what they believe. But it is to the detriment of Necessary Errors that these issues are also unclear to the reader and perhaps the author. In other words, the book suffers from a case of the mimetic fallacy, in which the style matches the subject too well. Crain joins his character’s youthful, confused perspective rather than transcending it ...Despite these caveats, Necessary Errors is often quite appealing thanks to Crain’s lovely, sure-handed prose. Line by line, the book is chock-full of masterly word choices and images ... Necessary Errors heralds the fiction debut of a writer with intelligence and an engaging prose style. The book also serves as a document of a unique cultural moment that has vanished.
Jacob’s youthful frame of reference, his ardent sincerity and his misapprehensions about what he is or ought to be doing as a young American gay man living in an unfamiliar country are a big part of what makes Necessary Errors a constant pleasure to wander through ... while Jacob may be questionably reliable in his sense of himself and his own motivations, Crain’s account of life in Prague in 1990 and 1991 is abundantly evocative and, mostly, right on the money ... Without much of a plot per se to drive it forward, the novel simply accompanies Jacob over the course of nine or 10 months ... One of the impressive feats that Crain pulls off in Necessary Errors is to involve us closely with all the individual members of this group, and he draws each of them sharply, almost entirely through dialogue ... Crain himself has mentioned in interviews that he hasn’t been back to Prague since 1993...But one thing this large-spirited novel demonstrates is that even the errant missions of our youth maintain a necessary resonance long after we believe their influence has faded.
Like Venus rising from the foamy sea, Caleb Crain’s first novel, Necessary Errors, appears to have entered the world fully formed, wanting for nothing ... Much of the novel’s copious, rich humour is to be found in Crain’ finely tuned ear for dialect ... But the novel’s nostalgic, time-seizing sensibility, it’s thwarted-writer/narrator, all powerfully — and favourably — recall Proust; Crain luxuriates in detail and dialogue to the degree that we often seem to move forward more slowly than in real time. When Annie tells the group about the Thomas Mann stories she’s reading it’s a description that could well be applied here: 'I find I get quite lost in it. . . Nothing whatever happens for pages and pages, and one doesn’t mind somehow.'
Despite the allusions to Hemingway’s classic, Necessary Errors doesn’t lack in originality. Crain cleverly conveys the difficulties of expat life...the novel’s erratic pace and abrupt cuts between scenes envelop the reader in the same feeling of frivolity and aimlessness that the expats experience themselves ...Despite the novel’s looming socio-political backdrop—the parting Iron Curtain and the Velvet Revolution—its story is mesmerizingly personal ... There are no momentous acts of rebellion or civil unrest in Necessary Errors, and it’s certainly not the rambling plot of the characters’ comings and goings that drive Crain’s narrative. Instead, like The Sun Also Rises, this book centers on the psychological events of each well-crafted character. But Crain takes the expat-novel paradigm a step further, finding a poignant analogy between physical displacement—even if willful, in exotic Prague—and psychological change. Jacob starts off as a boy in Necessary Errors, and Crain starts with Hemingway’s canonical masterpiece. By the end of this unpretentiously perceptive story, whose quiet surface belies a storm of activity underneath, each arrives at a distance quite far from where he began.
Reading other people's descriptions of topics you know intimately is usually a recipe for disillusionment; here, it's almost cause for alarm. Necessary Errors so completely recaptures the smells and scenes and political conversations and above all the feelings of 1990-91 Czechoslovakia that I began to actively worry that Mr. Crain was inserting new memories into my brain, now fuzzed up by advancing age and beer residue. But the question haunting the novel, like its characters, is: Does it all really matter? Somewhere deep in the book—for me, it was page 302—the reader will realize that nothing much is ever going happen ... There's some de-coupling and re-coupling, a few going-away parties, and a whole lot of meta-discussion ... This may be a realistic enough depiction of expat angst, but whether it makes for a compelling narrative will probably depend on your tolerance for eavesdropping on other people's writing groups or for reading deep drunken thoughts... Reminding ourselves of a different time may not be necessary, but it certainly can't hurt.
...Surreal and lovely scenes abound ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.