You won’t find another novel like Prague. A book, as reviewer Ron Charles puts it, “about Budapest called Prague by a Midwesterner who lives in Paris.” Actually, Charles omits the fact that although Arthur Phillips started out in Minneapolis, he stopped over in Cambridge on the way to pick up a Harvard degree. It’s not as though some flatland naif-savant suddenly became a literary phenom. Worthy of note as well is that Phillips may be the only writer of note to claim five Jeopardy championships. But to the novel itself.
Prague is a work of studied and relentless irony. Its tone is reminiscent of Franzen, but it’s Franzen exaggerated. Irony demands detachment, but Phillips’ brand often puts us so far outside the story and the characters that we seem to be watching their world on a department store t.v. screen from across a wide boulevard. In the opening pages, he introduces his band of young ex-pats by describing a pub game, a variation of Truth or Dare, which they play regularly and take seriously. He doesn’t show us anyone at first, but instead lists the game’s rules–by the numbers. Phillips is fond of such lists and quantification and uses them often. Here, he takes us through rounds one, two, three, and four of the game, during which we learn that the group of Americans (whoops, one Canadian) has been drawn to Budapest by the recent fall (it’s 1990) of Communism. It’s something of a wild west situation, a society whose old rules no longer apply, whose new rules have yet to be drawn. A place of confusion and opportunity. None of the characters appears particularly wise or prescient, none clear about why they are there. Witness this exchange from “Round Two.”
[Charles:] There will come a point . . . when the Hungarians will realize that you can have too much democracy. They’ll realize they need a slightly stronger hand at the helm, and they’ll make the right choice” a strong Hungary with a real national-coporatist philosophy. . . . Like they had in the early forties.”
Mark: “As my dad always said, one’s pain should always be held in perspective. There is always someone worse off than yourself. That’s a perennial comfort.”
Emily: “. . . the world contains more nice people than mean people. I really believe that.”
It seems clear that Phillips wants us to join him in a certain amount of snickering and sneering at the banality of these conversations. The listing and the pseudo-playscripting are just two of the devices he uses to keep us at least at arm’s length from the story. He can’t have us identifying too closely with characters we’re meant to be judging rather harshly. Prague is a novel, rather like a Brechtian play, intended to make us think more than feel. Still, Phillips manages to engage our sympathies enough to keep us reading. He’s subtle, but he’s good at it. Here, he’s describing Emily’s morning workout, and we’re amused at her compulsiveness:
When the Monday sun hoisted its first yolk-yellow arc over an eastern hill of Buda, Emily was. . . waiting for it. . . . She was in the third part of a five-part high-impact-aerobics workout she had done every morning since her first day at the University of Nebraska. . . . she began her routine before sunrise and at the first glimpse of the sun, she would say, “Boo!” just as her father had done every morning in Nebraska, holding little Emily on his lap on a porch swing or at the kitchen table.
And with a touch of Rockwellian sentimentality, Phillips saves the scene from incipient ridicule and staves off total reader alienation.
Phillips is also a master of efficient and sarcastic exposition. He and Zadie Smith share this facility, I think. Here’s a scene where Charles (who speaks Hungarian via his parents, but is in every other way American) is introduced to a sixty-something Hungarian publisher who is trying to get his exiled-to-Vienna-during-Communism business re-established in Budapest.
My good [Charles] we are very honored to welcome you. . . . We are quite at your disposal. Your trip, I hope, was–” The script was followed precisely (alternating in generous English and generous Hungarian, until the man who reverted first to his native tongue would have admitted the same defeat as the man who lets his business rival pay for lunch): the names of the three other men. the ritual exchange and tribal inspection of business cards. a joke abut the ritual of exchanging and tribally inspecting business cards. Charles’s request that the others call him Karoly. Horvath noting the coincidence [of their identical last names]. Charles’s travel experience. Vienna, the neighborhood. the building. . . . Conclusion of introductory remarks. shiny delicious early train to Innsbruck not yet an impossibility.
It’s quite a while before the various plots and subplots sort out and the primary storyline manifests. That’s appropriate because the characters themselves lead generally aimless lives whose directions become more clear pretty much by happenstance. It’s not until the last third of the book that the reader (at least this reader) gets truly pulled into the intrigue. By that time Phillips has established so many layers of reality that it’s a simultaneously exciting and bewildering experience to travel from one character’s mind or location to another.
The geographical and psychological bi-location of Buda and Pest contributes to the feeling of separation of reader from characters and the characters from one another. Back and forth across the Chain Bridge and over the Danube travel the plots and people who are trying to make some sense and some hay out of the post-apocalyptic chaos. By the end we’re treated to what Phillips seems to intend as metaphorical capitalist deal-making over a comatose Eastern Europe. We divided the region up at Versailles (Call it Trianon, the Hungarians insist) after WWI; now we’re dividing it up again with cash rather than treaties.
As moralistic and even cliched as that judgment might sound, the atmosphere of Prague is clearly amoral. This is neither the naive do-gooding-with-unforseen-consequences of The Quiet American or the rape of the innocents a la Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Collusion and corruption occur almost by accident. In general, these people do not exploit with intent, but by default. Greed is no more or less evil than a range of urges from adoration to dipsomania, and this crowd follows its impulses.
Despite the fact that Phillips doesn’t let us touch his characters with ten-foot pole most of the time, the book is a satisfying read that uses a specific time and place to help us experience what can happen when people with little internal structure are placed in a situation where virtually all external structures have disappeared. There are many such times and places in history, and Phillips has chosen well an environment that to my knowledge has been written about very little. At least in English.
And what of Prague? The city, not the novel. It bothered me a mightily throughout most of the book that there was so little of Prague in Prague. Now that I’ve finished, I think I know what Phillips intended, but to share my thought would be to ruin the book for others, so I’ll keep it to myself for now.