Necessary Errors

Map of Prague, 1987

Necessary Errors, my first novel, was published by Penguin in 2013. The Wall Street Journal named it one of the ten best novels of 2013, and it was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. It was generously reviewed by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books, among others.

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Best-of lists and other recognition

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. Necessary errors, indeed. But a pleasure, undeniably.”

—James Wood, “Eastern Promises,” The New Yorker

“Very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed. . . . 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. . . . A powerful entry in the great fictional exploration of the meanings of liberation.”

—Norman Rush, “A Utopia of Friends,” The New York Review of Books

“The critic and journalist Caleb Crain has been-to-Prague been to Prague, and one of the remarkable things about his rather remarkable first novel, Necessary Errors, is the way he makes ‘that thing’ — the experience of an idealistic young American abroad — feel newly revelatory and important. . . . Mr. Crain does not update the story with newfangled novelist’s tricks, odd typography or funny drawings in the margins. He merely writes his characters and settings so well, with such precise attention to physical and psychological detail, that the reader feels introduced to a small world of people and places.”

—David Haglund, “Reconstructing a Lost Time of Love and Literary Ambitions,” New York Times

Necessary Errors is a slow, beautiful look at the process of assembly, destruction, and revision specific to coming of age. It captures the Herculean task of forging one’s own definitions of success and authenticity.”

Zeke Turner, Bookforum

“A new sort of model for contemporary fiction.”

—Jane Hu, “Nothing Happens, Deliberately,” Slate

“Crain nicely captures the feel of two societies perched on the edge of becoming vastly more open—gay culture and the former Eastern Bloc—but where he really shines is in capturing the subtle, omnipresent disorientation of the expat experience.”

—Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine

Necessary Errors is one of the best American novels of the last decade.”

Geoff Mak, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Crain records what it feels like to be embedded in a specific place and time, attempting to see into places one cannot visit. He captures the hesitance of two systems, or two selves, touching along a fragile filament.”

Ryder Kessler, “Conversion Sickness,” Public Books

“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.”

Emily Donaldson, Toronto Star

“The remarkable powers of observation and recollection on display here are evident everywhere. In dealing with human relations, that minuteness of description traces with great precision every fluctuation of feeling.
. . . Description, analysis and interpretation merge seamlessly in Crain’s deceptively simple prose, so that the most ordinary encounters are charged with unexpressed meanings as in a Henry James novel.”

Michiel Heyns, “A leisurely portrait of companionship,” Sunday Independent (Johannesburg, South Africa)

“A novel of incredible beauty and clarity.”

James McDonald, Lambda Literary

“Crain does a fantastic job of immersing the reader in the setting, capturing both Prague’s physical details and its atmosphere. He handles the characters with equal depth and heart. They feel simultaneously realistic and storylike, which might be an effect of their being the sort of people who like to picture themselves as characters in a novel.”

—Christine Pivovar, Kansas City Star

“A story of considerable power.”

Jon Garelick, Boston Globe

“Its story is mesmerizingly personal. . . . Like The Sun Also Rises, this book centers on the psychological events of each well-crafted character.”

Lauren Christensen, Vanity Fair’s VF Daily

“Those who have wandered will recognize how poignantly Crain distills the essence of that time.”

—Y. Greyman, “In Prague on an Errand,” Open Letters Monthly

“Elegant and intellectually robust”

Mark Athitakis, Newsday

“Love and idealism against the backdrop of a country on the cusp of wrenching fiscal and social change.”

Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg

“A convincing fictional depiction of that magical and anarchic interlude between the end of communism and the beginning of capitalism, between Velvet Revolution and Velvet Divorce, when a generation of ignorant, adventure-seeking young Westerners collided, clumsily and euphorically, with a knowledge-starved Czech cohort that had just toppled totalitarians.”

Matt Welch, Wall Street Journal

“There’s so much to like here that you’ll want to take it slow.”

Kevin Nguyen, Grantland

“A sparkling first novel by the literary critic Caleb Crain about youth, ambition, and self-invention in early-’90s Prague.”

—Emily Cronin, Harper’s Bazaar

“An endearing and thoughtful look at the expatriate experience.”

—Steph Opitz, Marie Claire

“Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold.”

Garth Risk Hallberg, The Millions

“A compelling and heartfelt story that captures both the boundless enthusiasm and naïveté of youth.”

Kerri Price, Booklist

“Crain (American Sympathy) continues his ascendant career with this fully realized debut novel, which delights and surprises with every paragraph.”

­Travis Fristoe, Library Journal

“Crain reinvents the novel of the innocent in his well-wrought debut.”

Publishers Weekly

Early praise

“In its rich and elaborate depictions of a time and a life, of character and growth and pain, and in its psychological curiosity and emotional rigor, Necessary Errors is a rarity—a brave, humane, dignified novel of eros and youth in the shadow of history.”

Donald Antrim, author of The Afterlife

“Caleb Crain has written a novel of surpassing intelligence and unexpected beauty about a young American’s year in post-Communist Prague—and about how we find, and construct, the story of our lives. His great achievement is to make the unfolding of Jacob Putnam’s newfound sexual freedom resonate with the unfolding of Czechs’ new historical freedoms, so these separate arcs seem of a piece. His precision of description, whether of architecture or emotional weather, is enviable; his dialogue both playful and profound. It is rare to read a book of this length and feel that every sentence mattered, rarer still to finish a novel of such intellectual depth and be so moved.”

Amy Waldman, author of The Submission

“This novel sounds like nothing else happening now in American fiction. It’s a tale of erotic awakening that contains—more like encodes—an attempt to read an historical moment, the nineties, when it seemed to many people that history was over. It has shades of Young Werther blowing through it. And shades of Young Törless. But also something other that’s quiet and powerful and its own.”

John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

“Caleb Crain describes a young man’s and a country’s first tastes of freedom with a lucid and matter-of-fact intelligence. Necessary Errors offers an invaluable record of Prague at the beginning of the 1990s in a style that places it among the great novels of Americans abroad. It’s The Ambassadors for the generation that came of age with the downfall of the Soviet Union.”

Marco Roth, author of The Scientists

“Caleb Crain’s beautiful novel is a real feat of memory and invention, which captures the feeling of being young, sensitive, and vaguely but intensely ambitious better than anything I know in recent fiction. Everything in Necessary Errors feels both transitory and indelible, and isn’t that the way?”

Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision

“I’ve long admired Caleb Crain’s writing, and Necessary Errors is a tender, immersive, insightful novel. Its author builds with affection a world large and small—of early-nineties Prague, gay nightlife, the hardships of laundry, the penumbra of post-Soviet capitalism, beer versus tea, intense expat friendships, a hamster who lives in a pot, and the hopeful stages of love.”

Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding

“It is rare, and most welcome, to read a first novel with as much elegance, intelligence, humor, and tenderness as Necessary Errors. It is also rare to read any novel that creates this much beauty with such a light but sure touch. An exquisite debut.”

Stacey D’Erasmo, author of The Sky Below and A Seahorse Year

“As someone who is often unduly nostalgic about having been in her twenties during the 1990s (though not for as good a reason as having been in Prague during the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution), this novel triggered something like a sense memory. Caleb Crain is remarkable at capturing that time in life when ambition and longing are at once all-consuming and all over the map. I winced in self-recognition more than once—and marveled at the author’s insights more often than that.”

Meghan Daum, author of My Misspent Youth
and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House

“I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel that gets down, the way this one does, how it felt to be an American and a gay man at the end of the Cold War—so exiled from the country you grew up in that you go abroad to make a new world. Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors is an adventure of the head and heart. His hero, Jacob, turns to the cafes, bedrooms, and libraries of newly free Eastern Europe, an American in search of a European Bildungsroman, in search of love and possibility both.”

Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh

“Youth and innocence—remember them? Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors stabs the heart with the story of Jacob Putnam’s sentimental education in Prague, and reminds us that to be young is to live abroad in a fallen empire where the talk goes on all night, the dumplings are sliced thick, and blue jeans are rare and too expensive. Pick this novel up and you won’t forget it.”

Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True


For an imaginary extra-illustrated edition of the novel, I posted a series of photographs, postcards, and ephemera on this blog.

I was also fortunate to have Penguin hire animator Brian Spinks to produce a video trailer for the book.

Reading group guide

Penguin has put together a guide for reading groups, which includes an introduction to the book, an interview, and some discussion questions.


An excerpt of the novel appeared in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s magazine, and another appeared on the website of the literary journal n+1. (It was also excerpted in the app versions of The New Yorker and Marie Claire, but I don’t know how to link to those.)

Book tour

Happily for me, I’m a civilian again, but here’s a list of where I gave readings:

  • Brooklyn, August 7, 2013 (Wednesday), 7pm. Book Court.
  • Manhattan, August 12, 2013 (Monday), 7pm. McNally-Jackson. In conversation with Lorin Stein.
  • San Francisco, California, August 14, 2013 (Wednesday), 6pm. Book Passage.
  • Washington, D.C., September 21, 2013 (Saturday), 3:30pm. Politics and Prose. With Anne Sward.
  • Brooklyn, September 22, 2013 (Sunday), 11am. Brooklyn Book Festival.
  • Austin, Texas, September 26, 2013 (Thursday), 7pm. Joynes Literary Series, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Bennington, Vermont, October 2, 2013 (Wednesday), 7pm. Bennington College.
  • Manhattan, October 6, 2013 (Sunday), 7pm.
    KGB Bar. With Kevin Baker.
    85 East 4th St., New York, NY.
  • Boston, October 19, 2013 (Saturday), 12:30pm. Boston Book Festival. With Christopher Castellani, Henriette Lazaridis Power, Russ Rymer, and Dawn Tripp (host).
  • Williamsburg, November 21, 2013, 7:30pm. Pete’s Candy Store. With Sarah Bruni.