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Prague, the novel

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The title of Arthur Phillips’ novel Prague is a joke that sets the tone for the book: it takes place in Budapest but its characters, young North Americans playing the expat game in newly post-Cold War Hungary, all believe that life would be much cooler in Prague.

Being one place and dreaming about another is the condition that Phillips explore at length in this very funny but equally sad book. One of his characters is a scholar of nostalgia who can tell you what previous times people pined for at any moment in history. He believes he has pinpointed the first European artists’ cafe experience of which all others, from the Parisian boulevard haunts of your favorite literary figures right down to your local Starbuck’s, are Nth-generation copies. Anyone who has ever envied Hemingway and Fitzgerald their lostness while harboring doubts about whether there was really any there there on the Left Bank, either, will be able to relate.

The book opens with another of its themes, the parlor game Sincerity, in which players go around the table telling precisely three lies and one truth and points are earned for distinguishing between them. (Heather Champ hosts a weblogger’s variation on the game in her blog.) Deception, that staple of 20th century genres from the simple mystery to the self-conscious literary tale told by an unreliable narrator, is ubiquitous in the world of Prague. Everyone is fooling everyone else, most of all themselves. And yet, as in the game of Sincerity, truth creeps in as well and can be harder to swallow than the lies.

A couple of quotes. Here is the historian of nostalgia:

No one ever knew they were old-fashioned; everyone always thought they were up-to-the-minute: Rickety Model T cars weren’t rickety when they were invented, scratchy radio wasn’t scratchy until television, and silent movies weren’t a feeble precursor of talkies until there were talkies. Your two-piece telephone that demanded that you hold a cylinder to your ear while you screeched into the wall demanding a particular exchange of a harried, plug-juggling operator was the highest of high-tech. To know it was anything less would have been like acknowledging you were going to die and life was transient and you were already halfway to being a memory or worse. The real and worst tragedy of twentieth-century East Europeans: They had known they were old-fashioned before they could do anything about it.

The jokes in Prague mostly depend on the characters and so are hard to catch the flavor of here. Here is one character’s childhood list of lessons learned from his precocious reading:

age 8: avoid sea travel (Treasure Island)

age 9: as you get older, it’s harder to have any fun (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

age 9: don’t go looking for trouble (The Hobbit)

age 10: it takes a lot of money to get out of trouble (The Count of Monte Cristo)

age 11: sometimes it’s better to just leave well enough alone (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)

age 12: if you’re not really, really careful, you’ll grow up bitter (Moby-Dick)

age 13: always know where your escape routes are and what you can use as a weapon in case of trouble (The Heart of Darkness)

age 13: don’t read too much (Don Quixote)

age 15: it’s better to die, even to die slowly, than to get married (War and Peace)

age 15: a lot of people feel like I do, but they’ve learned to hide it (The Stranger) because they’re phonies (The Catcher in the Rye)

age 16: I want to live inside a glowing circle of love and romance (title never included; entry violently scratched out with black ink shortly after being written)

age 17: once it’s past, forget it; it won’t help to think about it (The Great Gatsby)

age 19, last entry, freshman year of college: No one cares. And why should they? (No Exit, Nausea)

With which Phillips sets up the character in question and mocks the reader for trying to glean any simple lessons from his book. Okay, so maybe you had to be there to catch the humor — Prague is worth the trip.

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About Prentiss Riddle

  • Who said irony was dead? Nobody told Arthur Phillips. The approach was overdone. Everyone wasn’t exactly what they appeared. Sounds like real life. Maybe that’s an ironic point Phillips missed. But you see the endless literary analysis that can take place with a novel like this. At least I didn’t hate any of the characters, and the depiction of Budepest tempts me to visit Orbitz to check on flights.