Literary characters have been looking at their lives as literary creations at least since David Copperfield uttered the phrase "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life. . . ." So it's no surprise that the debut novel by essayist and literary critic Caleb Crain, "Necessary Errors," should have as its protagonist a would-be novelist who self-consciously looks at his life as a "story," a narrative of which he might or might not be author/hero. But Crain's Jacob Putnam must undergo a more modern existential plight than Dickens's hero. Given to overanalyzing his emotions, Jacob is thus cut off from them. The drama of the novel comes from seeing the emotional obstacles Jacob puts in his own path, and waiting for the breakthrough that must come. It's to Crain's credit that he's able to engage us through one torturous bout of self-examination after another and deliver a story of considerable power.
The year is 1990. Jacob has moved from Boston to the newly liberated Prague, where he is teaching English in a language school. In his mid-20s, Jacob has within the past couple of years realized that he is gay. In a sense, he wants to get away from familiar surroundings of Boston and the former lover he pines for, but he's also drawn to the liberation of a year abroad, in the midst of a society that is likewise redefining itself.
Jacob falls in with a lively group of fellow ex-pats — British and European. There's much drinking in pubs, political argument, gossiping. At first, only one woman in the group, the Irish Annie, knows that Jacob is gay. He cruises nightspots he's found in a gay guidebook. He falls in with shady characters with mysterious backgrounds and has an affair.
Jacob's gradual coming out to his Prague friends is only part of the story. We see the constant struggles with language, with the family of his resident landlord, and get a texture of the life of Jacob and his friends through their student-scale budgets and haggling over prices, the scarcity and uniform shabbiness of commercial goods. We see the familiar drama of friends falling in and out of love, getting together, breaking up. And always the constant self-analysis as Jacob defers the "systems of money and responsibility" that await him back in America. Throughout the novel, Crain is his own meta-critic, making literary analysis a convincing part of Jacob's narrative. Early on, there's a lovely, succinct reading of an Emily Dickinson poem as it's unraveled by one of Jacob's English classes. And the comic high point of the novel comes in a writers' group discussion that's like an Alice-in-Wonderland parody of every "workshop" that's ever been.
That story belongs to Jacob's friend Henry. But even more telling is an analysis of Jacob's own attempt at a story (never revealed to the group, and the only one he writes during his year in Prague), in which his dour German friend Kasper reveals the plain truths Jacob cannot see.
Crain's mastery of this subtle kind of dramatic irony — in which we perceive truths that remain hidden from Jacob — is what gives the novel its cumulative emotional heft. Jacob's wish for "freedom" remains elusive to his own senses, but we witness it all around him, especially in a touching gesture offered as a farewell gift by a Czech family to whom he has been giving private English lessons. By story's end, Jacob seems only on the cusp of entering his own story through his emotions. But through the indirection, the "errors" of that story, we're fully in it, and fully feeling it.