DECEMBER 25, 2013
A GOOD NOVEL will present a vision that draws from, subverts, and transcends its tradition, social context, and even its own author. In this year alone two exceptionally good novels were published: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. They have arrived like all good novels do: timelessly in a specific historical moment, existing as T.S. Eliot described “of the timeless and of the temporal.” They are both interpretations on the same theme: an American expatriate’s self-discovery during political revolution. Both are set in the recent past. Both are concerned with the relationship between political revolution and issues of gender and sexuality. Yet quality seems to be the only thing they share, as their approaches are diametric opposites of one another. In healthy times, we’d celebrate them equally, able to value a Norman Mailer as much as a William Burroughs. But rumor has it that these aren’t particularly healthy times.
The critical praise for The Flamethrowers has approached near hysteria, so much that the backlash-sport of criticizing it has become at best an entertaining failure. All this indicates how today’s most popular literary fashions have been preparing us for The Flamethrowers. We knew how to read it. The same can hardly be said about Necessary Errors. Most critics have called it a good if not puzzlingly contrarian novel. But they can’t agree on why, and the book is already fading away into the back shelves of “Promising New Author, let’s see what he does next.” This fall, The Flamethrowers was a frontrunner for the National Book Award while Necessary Errors was not even longlisted. It was also a straight-to-paperback release.
So why is one favored over the other? Again: fashion. In an increasingly balkanized culture we find ourselves in today, literary styles fight for dominance. Materialist fiction has largely fallen along with the materialist ideology of the Soviet Union. Likewise, the spare prose once celebrated in the Dirty Realist 1980s has in this decade been relegated to ethnic fiction coming out of creative writing MFAs. In its decline, a new prose is emerging that is unlike either of its immediate predecessors: a kind of post-Freudian post-9/11 neoromantic lyricism.
If the category sounds clunky, that’s because it is. In the 18th century, romanticism emerged in England as a reaction to the decline of religion, and the rise of Newtonian physics and the calcified capitalism of Adam Smith. Thus a revival of “sublimity” took place, midwifed by the first English translation of Longinus’s On The Sublime, and Edmund Burke’s treatise reinterpreting the sublime for his contemporary age. The sublime is the terrifying cousin to the harmony and balance of the classics. They’re about as different as Chartres Cathedral and the Parthenon.
A similar thing is happening today. In the monotonous age of American capitalism versus Chinese capitalism, our literary fashion has gravitated towards a 21st-century brand of romanticism, reimagined for the Freudians. Editors, agents, and literary magazines alike are scrambling to discover the next Karen Russell, or the next George Saunders, as they have paved the way for this so-called neoromanticism. They’re also short story writers, because their prose is hard to sustain for the length of a novel. That may be why no other American novel in recent years has captured this phenomenon so wholly and successfully as Rachel Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers.
On the surface, Kushner’s prose differs from the wacky humor of Russell or Saunders. The Flamethrowers is much more understated, but similar in that it portrays an asymptotic relationship to the self: the closer you get, the stranger it appears. Kushner achieves this with lush prose that explores the irrational, the sexual, and the nightmarish. As far as realism goes, The Flamethrowers is as realist as Flaubert’s Salambo.
Kushner is at the top of her game, taking a huge leap from her debut novel Telex From Cuba, presenting in The Flamethrowers a terrifying vision that’s painful and difficult to swallow. But what does it say about our culture that we like it so much? Does it resonate with and challenge the way we live now, or is just the literary drug to our masochistic convalescence?
Reno, the narrator of The Flamethrowers, is a protagonist who is memorable less for her observations than for her obsessions. In the book’s early pages, Kushner describes her narrator’s mind with two aphorisms. The first is of the creative process: “Art came from a brooding solitude. I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.” The second is on her conception of love: “People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.”
These aphorisms set into motion everything that happens in Reno’s journey and the novel she narrates. She begins by moving from art school in Nevada to New York to become a land artist. There, she falls into a group of artists through whom she meets Sandro Valera, an heir to the fortune of an Italian rubber factory with a covert history of labor exploitation. Reno and Sandro fall into an affair, leading them to Italy where, incidentally, a protest has broken out at the Valera factories. Both the affair and the protests turn out to be ill fated, and Reno returns to New York with the searing suspicion that after her journey through three cities and two continents, she still knows nothing. It’s a tough ending to take.
Despite its premise, The Flamethrowers is not a love story. Nor is it really a novel about art. For Reno, love and art are vestigial of the deeper desire to transgress the unknowable, the unsaid, the limitless — to stand at the edge of fear. The objects of her desire are mere placeholders, so eclipsed by her deeper appetite that they’re discarded once devoured.
When we’re introduced to Reno as an art school graduate, she wants nothing more than to be an artist in New York, but by the time a top gallerist considers her work for representation, Reno is just not interested. It’s a similar story with her cycling. When she competes in the motor races at the Bonneville Salt Flats, she endangers her life as she breaks the world record for women’s racing. She then travels to Italy for a publicity tour, though once the factory protests interrupt her plans, she abruptly drops all cycling ambitions for the rest of the novel. The third in this sequence is her participation in the factory protests, and you can probably guess what happens. It doesn’t work out. Reno moves on.
The one figure that is enduringly fascinating to Reno is the character of Ronnie Fontaine. While The Flamethrowers centers largely on Sandro as Reno’s lover, his personality isn’t that compelling and neither is his art. The greater figure in both respects is Sandro’s best friend and Reno’s casual lover Ronnie, with whom her story begins and ends.
In the fourth chapter, she sleeps with him after a long night barhopping. In the anonymity of her bedroom, she doesn’t ask his name, because she wants to “pass over names and go right to the deeper thing.” What that “deeper thing” is doesn’t become fully aestheticized until much later in the novel when Ronnie, at a dinner party after his art opening, delivers an extensive monologue to his guests about sea voyage on a vessel called the Reno:
I felt what I can only call a mystical vibration when we lost sight of land […] As we dipped into Melanesia, we were all deep in the rhythm of the journey. We would make the world round by circling it. Then one morning we woke to discover we were taking in water. The Reno had sprung a slow leak. Fortunately we had a transmitter and were able to send out a distress signal. A devious cruising tug from the tiny island of Kokovoko managed to find us. By the time we spotted its smokestack, chugging merrily in our direction, we were loading supplies into a rubber dinghy, just in case we had to abandon ship. The tug captain advised us to ride with him, to be on the safe side, as he towed the Reno. He was jovial and friendly to us, at least to me, the commodore, Artemio, and Xerxes. He didn’t much like the commodore’s wife and even suggested she remain on the Reno, despite having already said it was dangerous to do so, since our boat was technically sinking. Much later, when I worked on a tug in New York Harbor, the captain wouldn’t let his own daughter on the boat. Said it was bad luck. He used to tie her to the dock with sandwiches and some cans of beer. Pretty girl, but sort of spent looking, even at the age of twelve. Once I saw that girl at Magoo’s, all grown up and dead drunk. She dropped her cocktail, picked it up, and fit her hand into the broken glass to dig out the maraschino cherry. Put the cherry in her mouth and ate it. I said, “Hey. Hey, I know you. You’re the tugboat captain’s daughter, aren’t you.” You know what she said to me? “Fuck off,” and walked away. Can you believe it? Anyway, the tug captain from Kokovoko eventually agreed that the commodore’s wife could board the tug if she rode in the very back of the boat. The tug captain had wanted her to put a burlap sack over her head because he said if she faced the spray the water gods would be furious and drag us to our deaths. The commodore eventually got the tug captain to agree that his wife would ride unhooded, but would remain astern and keep her eyes on the wake. The commodore’s wife was upset about this, and in truth we were rather annoyed with her, too, for disrupting the flow of our rescue. I sensed the magical spell among us begin to evaporate just the slightest bit.”
If this sounds like gorgeous nonsense, that’s because it is. Whatever Ronnie’s talking about is essentially unknowable, even to Ronnie. While Ronnie narrates his odyssey, several guests at the dinner party feel the need to psychoanalyze him, or to accuse him of making this all up. After the dinner party, Reno confronts him privately, asking him why he tells lies. His response is plainly: “They aren’t lies.”
And to be fair, they’re not. Like the writing of Lacan and Kafka, two of Kushner’s heavier influences, Ronnie’s dreamscape functions so deeply beneath the surface that it can be interpreted to symbolize pretty much anything in the novel’s wider narrative. It’s the novel’s subconscious mind, if you will. But picking apart the meanings behind the symbols seems to me like analyzing a dancer’s costume instead of his movements. The verbs, in Ronnie’s case, are more useful than the nouns. They reveal a formidable vibration beneath this surrealistic landscape: an epic thrust towards the undiscovered.
Both Reno and Ronnie are driven by their hunger to encounter nothing less than greatness. They’re both perpetual wanderers, infinitely interested and disappointed. For Reno, her desire is as insatiable as it is irrepressible, and it’s when Kushner describes Reno’s fervor when the novel’s prose reaches its highest degree of erotic intensity (and I don’t think we aren’t supposed to see the title image as a phallic symbol, female or male).
This desire is precisely what vibrates at the deepest league of The Flamethrowers. Reno will wander through countries, picking up things and people on the way and dropping them once she’s done, and she’ll still never figure out what she’s searching for. She just knows she’s searching.
Like Ronnie, Reno is equally indefinable, and remains elusive to virtually every character in the novel, herself included. She cannot be defined, because her capacity is limitless and therefore indefinable. In Ronnie’s last lines in the book, he tells her:
I honestly don’t think you know yourself […] I’ll tell you something about us, about me and about you, and what happens when two people decide to share some kind of life together. One of them eventually becomes curious about something else, someone else. And where does that leave you?
One way to read Reno is through the lens of Ahab’s obsession to kill Moby Dick, or Gatsby’s to win back Daisy Buchanan, and they have fair similarities. But temperamentally, Reno is the complete opposite. Unlike Ahab or Gatsby, Reno constantly gets overlooked by the colossal characters who surround her. By contrast, she’s uncharismatic, passive, silent during dinner parties, waits to be served in sex, and disappears in and out of the New York art scene without much notice. Here, Kushner ingeniously subverts the masculine model of Captain Ahab: rather than having Reno impose her presence and motivations on those around her, she retreats as a quiet, feminine presence amongst the titanic artists around her.
Does passivity dampen or provoke aggression? In Reno’s case, they’re unrelated. Other women in the novel — Gloria or Helen — assert themselves in a passive-aggressive manner, but Reno never does this. Instead, she just leaves. In that sense, she differs from Ahab or Gatsby, who never abandon the white whale or Daisy Buchanan. Reno’s more relevant progenitor is, interestingly enough, Lady Brett Ashley. In The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett’s obsession is explicitly erotic, as she seduces pretty much every man in the novel. By the end, she is universally unsatisfied. Sounds like Reno, except her libido is a tad more diversified to include racing and art, not just sex. To this day, Lady Brett is largely dismissed as a nymphomaniac, yet one must ask, Why does Gatsby get to be a tragic hero while Lady Brett is Circe incarnate? It’s a question Kushner repeatedly challenges throughout The Flamethrowers.
Here is an example early in the novel, where Reno tells a story to a girl she met at a bar about when she had acted in a McDonald’s commercial as a teenager with another girl named Lena:
When we finished shooting the ad, I flew home […] Lisa was supposed to be on the flight but she wasn’t. She was eighteen, an adult, and I didn’t wonder. She had apparently gone to a bar near the fake McDonald’s in the City of Industry. No one ever heard from her again.
“Freaky,” Nadine said. “There’s no telling. Once I met the serial killer Ted Bundy. Can you believe it? He was real handsome. Real smooth. I was on a beach and here comes this hunky college guy. I was this close to ending up like the gal in that commercial with you.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that Lisa had been murdered. I assumed she’d been impatient to meet her future and had just fled into it and never bothered to let anyone know where she was and what she was doing. The representative who paid me could not track her down. He called to ask if I knew anything and I’d said no.
Something subtly subversive is happening here. In this episode, Nadine interprets Lena as a victim in her own disappearance. If Lena were male, that likely wouldn’t have been the case. She’d probably assume him to do what Reno does — grab the cash and take off to New York in search of a lover. But as a woman, Lena is placed in the passive role where she is the victim of her own disappearance, the result of some seedy irresponsibility (hanging out at a bar). But Reno’s recollection flips that on its head. She reaches an equally plausible conclusion, casting Lena as an active agent. She was impatient for her future, so she took control and “fled into” it. But Reno only thinks this; she doesn’t say it out loud. Nobody asked what she thought.
I would argue that The Flamethrowers is essentially a feminist novel, more than it is a political novel, or a novel about art. The cover photograph, chosen by Kushner herself, is not of an Italian protester, but of a woman with a white X over her mouth. She doesn’t match the physical descriptions of Reno, but the photograph illustrates the defiant silence that so characterizes Reno’s conflict. Unlike Ronnie, she doesn’t get a monologue. The characters in the novel don’t give her that privilege. Like Lena, Reno is spoken for, and the way her actions are interpreted say less about her than of the interpreter.
If Reno is a more enduring hero than Lady Brett, it might be because she’s just more acceptable by American moral standards. Fair enough. But if we don’t pay attention to what exactly Kushner is doing with Reno —or Hemingway with Lady Brett — we’d likely miss it. She is literally redefining how we think of the epic hero. More than any American novelist I’ve read in recent years, Kushner has created one of the strongest contenders to stand with Ahab and Gatsby in the great hall of heroes in American literature.
This representation of the self as immutable, unknowable, and helplessly agnostic is a uniquely American tradition, paved by writers in the last century like Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, both of whom have only grown more popular over time. In an essay, O’Connor’s writes “I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.”
Whereas the Georgians of O’Connor’s day would like to have defended the civic peace of their land, who would bother taking that up today? In an era of mass shootings, religious terrorism, and everyday genocide, how hallucinatory is O’Connor’s realism? Her world is what lies between realism and hallucination — it’s the realm of the bizarre, the gothic, the larger than life. Today, Kushner arrives in a long line of visionary writers like William Faulkner and O’Connor, as well as Nathaniel West and Carson McCullers. Kushner’s prose works best when rendering chaos, unforgiveness, and terror, and I don’t need to spell out why American readers resonate with this.
To what extent do the novels we read say about our culture? Is it something we’d prefer not to know? With the recent explosion of magical and speculative fiction, the goalpost of what’s considered fantastical had to yet again be moved, because reported reality got too close to what we considered unreal. The demand for these writers dictates what gets promoted by today’s top publishers and literary magazines, shoving the rest to our cultural blind spots. As much as the endangered postmodernists may claim that the “lyrical realism” of Flaubert and James rules the highways, it’s just not true. A lot has gotten trashed over the years, and I’m not just talking about the human soul. What about morality? Dead. Rhetoric? Dead. Love? Dead. As far as each of these goes, The Flamethrowers is at relative dearth. Outside of the tragic figure of the Italian factory protester — akin to Hemingway’s bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises — there is no compass for us to navigate this novel, moral or not. I’m not sure that this novel believes in change, political or personal. Autonomia failed in Italy as did Reno’s search for love. What is left?
Enter Caleb Crain. Necessary Errors is often described as weird, and I agree. It’s weird. Crain manages to defy a majority of today’s literary trends in his debut novel: it has neither a muscular plot, nor an idiosyncratic new voice; and nothing supernatural happens. Compared to The Flamethrowers, it’s not that dark. Instead of the visceral and the gothic, Crain’s prose is much more observed, and abounds in a luxury of detail that is often funny and devastatingly human. It shrewdly defies what we expect from a political novel, or an expatriate novel, or even a gay novel set in the 1990s. Unlike in, say, The Line of Beauty, the entire subject of AIDS in Errors is briefly touched upon, and dropped entirely, as if to tell the reader, “It’s not that kind of book.”
It’s hard to say what kind of book this is. It’s a romantic comedy, albeit a very highbrow one that’s influenced by Henry James, Hemingway, Isherwood, and Ivy Compton Burnett. It is structured into three chronological novellas following a year in the life of Jacob Putnam, a young gay man and recent Harvard graduate, who moves to Prague as an English teacher after the end of the Velvet Revolution in 1990. In the early pages, Crain writes:
Jacob had arrived in Prague with a project. […] It was a common enough project for an earnest, idealistic young person who was comfortable with only one pleasure, reading, and who had graduated from college in the year of the protest in Tiananmen Square, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution, so that his first personal experience of adult freedom — which he knew didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of things but which he felt with great intensity — seemed echoed by the wider world.
The “personal experience of adult freedom” is intended to mean Jacob’s discovering of his homosexuality. As he inches towards the acceptance of his identity, the former Communist state around him approaches a capitalistic democracy. It’s important not to interpret them as metaphors for one another (i.e., is Czech capitalism nature or nurture? Is friendship a false utopia?) but, like Crain states, as mere echoes — two parallel trajectories that unfold in sequence, and it’s these two threads with which all the novel’s events are contextualized.
Without those two threads — politics and sexuality — Necessary Errors might otherwise seem aimless and picaresque. Events and diversions happen as they might in life. Characters go on extended trips to Berlin or Krakow, not because anything is at stake or a lesson is about to be learned, but because they feel like it. This aim for objectivity, to portray things not as a way of revelation but simply as they are, owes heavily to The Sun Also Rises. In Hemingway’s expatriate novel, Jake (presumably Jacob’s namesake) and Bill go on their extended fishing trip because, well, they feel like it. The reader indulges in these diversions because much of the pleasure in each these novels comes from reading about a jovial group of friends. Following the lives of Jacob and his group of expatriates is as fun as following Jake and Bill and Lady Brett through the Spanish fiesta.
Yet Necessary Errors is twice as long as The Sun, mostly because Crain seems committed to a more lavish level of realism, closer to Henry James. The novel is full of prose as startlingly moving as here:
Jacob was taking brief glances at Carl’s beauty, at his slimness and at the pale delicacy of his skin, and it occurred to him that Carl might be growing his beard as a sort of courtesy, so that it would be that much harder for Jacob to fall in love with him again. Carl wouldn’t know that it didn’t have that effect.
His sentences are grounded in the physical, yet they reveal its characters’ mannerisms, personalities, and the accumulation of everyday miscommunications that make them who they are.
With such luxurious prose, restraint is crucial, and Crain doesn’t always achieve it. At times, this makes his prose as baroque as the buildings they describe, and like surrounding yourself with Hapsburg cathedrals, too much beauty takes its toll. Take for instance his description of asphalt:
They turned into a lane that ran through an empty block. Perhaps the expanse had been intended for a lawn; there didn’t seem to be any grass on it, however. There was just a thin crust of ice — the kind of dirty shellac that forms when a covering of snow melts by day and refreezes by night — pulling away from orange, sandy soil.
Like a camera with a poor depth of field, everything is in focus. There is such a thing as too much realism.
Like Crain’s novella “Sweet Grafton,” Necessary Errors is written primarily in dialogue. There are several advantages to this. As Necessary Errors is in Jacob’s point of view, characters can only express themselves outside of Jacob’s interpretation through dialogue, and they pretty much seize this opportunity whenever they can. Necessary Errors is a gregarious novel, which is partly why it’s so enjoyable to read. When Jacob and his friends meet, Crain’s writing works at the height of its power as he orchestrates a multiplicity of voices, each singing in melodic counterpoint with one another. Just by reading Crain’s dialogue, you get the sense that every character could be the protagonist of his or her own 500-page novel. One might consider Crain’s reliance on dialogue to be an influence from The Sun Also Rises, though I think that’s a misattribution, as his writing rarely shows the plainness and evasion idiosyncratic to Hemingway’s. What I find remarkably singular to Necessary Errors is that Crain’s dialogue has much more to do with who else but William Shakespeare.
In 16th-century England, rhetoric was actually a form of entertainment. Different times. Much of the pleasure from Shakespeare’s plays came from watching characters develop contradicting arguments, leading them to turn on each other or themselves to either success in a comedy or failure in a tragedy. No one forces anyone to do anything in Shakespearean drama. Characters choose to act through solipsistic reasoning, not of circumstance or a fixed set of morals. This tradition, deeply informed by classics, is largely absent in today’s novels. Most depict change as a static and victimized fall from grace (i.e., that was then, but this is now). But Necessary Errors isn’t like most novels.
The Jacob of the opening pages is almost unrecognizable with the Jacob at the end of the novel. While the novel’s first and third chapters are concerned mostly with Jacob’s romantic ventures, his turning point occurs in the second chapter, “Vyšrehad,” in which he plays the disinterested observer to a peripheral love triangle. The chapter begins when Jacob’s friend Carl visits from America. When he meets Jacob’s English friend Melinda, Carl grows quickly infatuated with her. The obstacle is that she’s in a serious relationship with a man named Rafe. When Carl first confides in Jacob about his affection, he says, “I don’t want anything to happen. I mean, I know it isn’t going to.”
At this point in the novel, Jacob has come out to only some of his friends, of whom Carl is the only male. Likewise, the other characters are wearing partial disguises. Melinda’s boyfriend Rafe, who works as a government spy, is quite literally in disguise. Then you have Carl, who is in love with Melinda, and partially pretends not to be. Melinda, who finds herself falling for Carl, must certainly hide it in front of Rafe, and at least in the beginning, she hides it from Jacob whom she assumes would tell his best friend Carl. It’s a classic setup for comic revelation.
About halfway through “Vyšrehad,” Melinda asks Jacob to dinner and confides in him about her feelings for Carl. It’s something several of their friends have already picked up on, including her boyfriend Rafe, who considers taking a new government post in Kyrgyzstan and wants to bring Melinda with him. She tells Jacob of her relationship with Rafe:
“It’s so much who one is, when one is in it, that I’m not certain it’s even possible to imagine oneself outside it. It’s hardly his fault if I’m reluctant to go to Kyrgyzstan, or what have you, and I don’t know, as you say, that I’m not simply imagining that I would be happier with Carl, or that I would be anything with Carl, really. Or that I’m unhappy with Rafe, in any serious way. Perhaps I simply want to have a secret.”
“Not that there’s anything to keep secret, mind you. A secret even from myself, in a way.”
“Like Rafe and his secret.”
“His secret,” she repeated. She flushed; patches of blood came into her face clumsily. “You think I can’t leave Rafe alone with it — is that what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know.”
“And I’ve brought Carl in only so as to bind myself more tightly to Rafe. What a horrible thought. It would be impossible for me to choose Carl freely, if you’re right […]”
“The only free act would be to give Carl up altogether.”
“Oh lord, I’d rather not be free then. Not quite yet. It’s like Immanuel Kant or something, isn’t it, your theory. But it’s not true, Jacob, though I can’t say why exactly. He isn’t an idea, for one thing. You’ve seen him. No doubt I shall give him up in the end, but not that way. No, not that way.”
It’s important to notice the extent of which this is actually a dialogue. Melinda says “your theory” and “as you say” to Jacob, but if we look at Jacob’s words themselves, they mostly just echo Melinda’s. Who, in this conversation, is actually referencing Immanuel Kant? Melinda attributes it to Jacob, though it’s clearly her own. Jacob is just the sounding board to what would otherwise be Melinda’s monologue.
Swiftly and shrewdly, Crain gives Jacob, as well as the reader, a glimpse into what it’s like to be Melinda at this point in her life: throwing out theories, talking them out, coming to conclusions, only to contradict them, all in the matter of seconds. It’s rhythmic density is similar to Lady Macbeth’s opening soliloquy, in which she relativizes and dismisses the concept of morality in some five or six lines, and plots to murder King Duncan. In Melinda’s dinner conversation, her mind is in the process of change, and it’s happening in real time at a terrifying speed. And what might be more haunting than Ronnie’s absurdist odyssey is that Melinda actually makes sense.
The tension between Melinda’s reason and feeling continues to pressure her, until she pushes herself over the threshold in scene that is an explicit homage to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On one of the last days before Carl flies back to America, Jacob’s group of friends go to a bar that’s a converted theater. It’s one of the few scenes in which Jacob, Melinda, Carl, and Rafe are sitting in the same room. After a “ghastly” confrontation between Melinda and Rafe, Rafe leaves her at the bar and goes home alone. After a few attempts to alleviate the mood, Carl mentions that he memorized lines from when he performed in As You Like It, and his friends beckon him to recite a speech on stage. He begins with a monologue from Rosalind:
He was to feel that every day his heart
Was wounded by my eye, yet flew to me,
Who wounded it, for succor; to feel that my heart,
Flutter’d, fearing, turn’d about with love,
Sought the wild alike, though I, heartless,
For safety ventured not: And so by feigning
That I, who loved him, loved him not, and he,
Who loved not me, did love, we made ourselves
A pair of doveless cotes, and coteless doves
Too shy and too high-flown for any keeping.
He held his pose after he finished the poetry, and they waited, in case there might be more, until Melinda, in the same voice as before, answered:
O youth, I would not be cured so!
The monologue corresponds with the plot of As You Like It, specifically Act II, scene 3, though if you try and look for it, you can’t. That’s because Crain made this up. Or Carl did, anyhow. I would even say that Carl’s reinvention lyrically surpasses the original monologue. In Carl’s version, he describes a scene that doesn’t actually happen in Shakespeare’s play: two young lovers pretending to love or not to love each other end up like restless birds with no home, too afraid or proud to keep any lover. At this depiction, a portrait of Carl and Melinda’s relationship, Melinda recites Orlando’s defiant answer: “O youth, I would not be cured so!”
Here, Caleb Crain’s 20-some years as a literary critic is not insignificant. Carl’s monologue is beautiful on its own, and it’s clear to anyone without a PhD. But the allusion, and the subversion, is perhaps a code to readers like Crain who are as versed in literary tradition. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays were full of oblique references to Chaucer, Seneca, and Kyd, but it never hindered his popularity at The Globe. But tracing Crain’s literary influences reveals just how playful Necessary Errors is. Those who have read As You Like It will know that Melinda’s line is also a misquotation. She rearranges the syntax. As an Englishwoman who namedrops Immanuel Kant on the fly, it’s plausible that Melinda is familiar enough with As You Like It to catch Carl’s improvisation. His Elizabethan iambic pentameter may be leagues away from Ronnie’s sprawling dreamscape, but Carl’s monologue also acts as a code between lovers. It’s a secret only he and Melinda understand, eluding Jacob and their friends and a vast majority of readers.
Carl’s argument is lyrical and persuasive enough to win Melinda over. And who can blame her? Contradicting everything Carl and Melinda have said up until this point, she leaves Rafe and Carl doesn’t fly back to America. They run off to Rome together.
After we learn about Melinda’s decision, her dinner conversation with Jacob reads quite differently. She says, “It’s so much who one is, when one is in it, that I’m not certain it’s even possible to imagine oneself outside it.” In Melinda’s context, the “it” refers to her relationship with Rafe, which is such a monolithic factor for who she is that alternatives don’t even seem possible. Then surprisingly and suddenly, she leaves Rafe for Carl, and the outcome seems inevitable in retrospect.
Melinda’s “it” is the key to understanding how change works in Necessary Errors. Crain intentionally uses the ambiguous pronoun to allow the aphorism to echo in all the other conflicts in Necessary Errors. “It’s so much who one is” can apply to the Czech Republic as a Communist state, or Jacob’s condition as a closeted gay man. Before the fall of the Berlin wall and the Velvet Revolution, the Soviet Union appeared indestructible until, quite abruptly, it fell.
In Jacob’s case, his closeted gay identity, as well as the current global oppression of gay rights in our present day, seems immutable. In the first chapter of Necessary Errors, Jacob moves through the underground gay community in Prague, and stumbles into a relationship with an attractive Czech man named Luboš. Towards the end of the chapter, Jacob discovers Luboš is part of a complex gay prostitution ring, which leaves Jacob stunned and hopelessly lost, agonistically searching for some form of grace. Most of today’s literary novels would end exactly here, and if Necessary Errors did, it still would’ve been phenomenal. But happily, it didn’t, and it defies most of what readers today are conditioned to expect from a literary novel.
Directly following Carl and Melinda’s story in “Vyšrehad,” the rest of Necessary Errors is shamelessly gilded. Jacob, after “what he had learned from Carl and Melinda,” goes through a Dionysian romp through Prague, and jumps into a love affair with a young Czech named Milo. When they meet, Crain describes Milo as shamelessly attractive:
His hair was pure blonde, very short, sloppily cut, as if he were a surfer who lived on a beach and had to cut it himself. He was watching the expression on Jacob’s face as if he were looking forward to whatever he was going to see there — as if he were confident that he was going to enjoy it.
The encounter is so serendipitous that we forget this isn’t the first time Jacob meets Milo. In fact, he appears briefly in the first section of the novel, but his presence is hardly memorable. Or rather, Jacob doesn’t notice him because he’s not in the condition to notice him. But after “Vyšrehad,” Jacob undergoes a fundamental change. Only in the third chapter is he able to appreciate the frank beauty of a man like Milo.
Their relationship has basically no conflict. They’re happy and they have amazing sex, and there’s nothing cheap about it. They both know it has a specified end date when Jacob leaves for America, but despite this, they choose to consciously not think about the future and they grow deeper into the relationship. Like all relationships, they have their conflicts, one of which nearly ends the relationship, but they make up and continue being happy and having amazing sex.
By the end of the novel, Jacob comes out to his straight friends, and he and his gay lover are openly and fully integrated in the community. Even foreknowing the ending does not dampen how unexpected it is. How many of today’s literary novels have endings that can be described as hopeful and happy? We are much more accustomed to endings like in The Flamethrowers, where Reno ends up lost and alone.
Is comedy more subversive than tragedy? These days, it is if you can pull it off, and Crain does so luminously. Compare it to the closing scene of Edmund White’s landmark gay novel The Beautiful Room Is Empty, where the novel’s protagonist wakes up after the Stonewall Riots to find not a single newspaper’s mentioning of the alleged birth of the gay civil rights movement. The progressive ending of Necessary Errors then seems unfathomable, both politically and personally. (Let’s not forget that Crain’s novel arrives in an American political climate where this year alone has seen unprecedentedly sweeping reforms for gay rights. The amount of politicians who’ve described this as “inevitable” would have astounded Edmund White in 1969.)
But Necessary Errors is not merely a “gay novel.” The salient virtue of Necessary Errors that is missing from a lot of novels with gay protagonists — or novels with any kind of protagonist — is that Crain gives equal weight and attention to the vitalities of hetero and homosexual relationships. In doing this, Crain shatters the distinction between the two sexualities, mutually universalizing the other. It is not the particularity, or the sexuality, of Carl’s and Jacob’s love that makes it poignant for readers. It is the action, change, revelation, and irony that the straight and gay characters have in common, freeing them of their superficial identifiers. Their humanity is radically universalized.
Certainly, Necessary Errors is one of the best American novels of the last decade; and on the shoulders of Edmund White, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal, this is uncontestably one of the best gay novels ever written in America.
Innovation happens in literature the same way it does in technology — by accident. In 1918, a British writer named Dorothy Richardson wrote Pointed Roofs. She probably wasn’t trying to revolutionize all of Anglophonic literature, for when critics first used the term “stream of consciousness” to describe her novel, she said it was just “interior monologue.” In the next ten years, Ulysses, To The Lighthouse, and The Sound and The Fury were written.
Whether or not Necessary Errors or The Flamethrowers does with Richardson did is way too early to tell. Who could have predicted that The Sun Also Rises would usher New Journalism, or that As You Like It would point to postmodernism? I certainly couldn’t have, nor is it my interest to do so. The critical tendency is to equate a novel’s singularity with greatness, though the strengths of Necessary Errors or The Flamethrowers are not particularly new. By the same token, there are other books that are much more original, and hardly half as good. The discussion of singularity is only helpful within a contemporary context, and by that parameter, Crain’s is the more singular. The Flamethrowers was rightfully praised for succeeding to do what many of today’s “neoromantic” writers attempt, and fail. Necessary Errors did what no one else is doing, and as a result, no one knows what to do with it.
What both novels demonstrate is a two-way conversation between past and present. If this is how progress happens historically and ideologically, it’s the same with the arts. Literature by dead people shapes and influences what gets written today, most effectively by writers who are sensitive to it, but in a less obvious way the reverse is also true. A novel can only usher a new set of literary potentialities by changing the way we see the novels written before it, which might be the only description of the avant garde that has ever been useful.
But avant garde or not, can a novel write about a specific subject in such a way that universalizes its conflict? At the end of the day, a novel lives or dies by how it answers this question, and Crain and Kushner have brilliantly succeeded. I’ve already said that neither book is better than the other, as I’m clearly enthusiastic about both. But if you were to ask me at this moment which I liked better, I’d say Crain’s.