There is no joy in struggling through an overly long, overly plodding novel. There is even less joy in the task of reviewing the book, in devoting substantial time and words to an explanation of why the book fails to elicit any more from a reader than admiration for the sales and publicity staff of the publisher. Writing bad books is not hard to do. Getting bad books published is also not hard to do. But getting bad books written, published and distributed with acclaim is no small feat and the marketing and sales force at Random House should take a bow for their efforts with Prague.
Prague is Arthur Phillips’ first attempt at a novel and although it is certainly as good or better than most first-novels, what he contributes to the book in the way of witty one-liners (all the characters except the boring, quasi-spy, lesbian-curious Midwesterner have them) is more than overwhelmed by the gratuitous insertion of rambling descriptions and prose that does nothing to advance the literary effort.
It is as if Phillips wanted to bring forth into the world a gelatinous blob of European history and modern American culture and attempt to roll it up the hills surrounding Budapest without losing any of its poorly outlined components. He gives the reader, in his unwieldy mass the obligatory: 1) conniving capitalist; 2) Midwestern sweetheart; 3) depressed queen; 4) fat-boy-turned-stud-muffin; 5) male virgin with no sense of self; 6) aging jazz singer who likes to tell whoppers to number 5; 7) bi-sexual artist who seduces both numbers 2, 5 and possibly 6. (Perhaps the author is exercising delicacy here but the reader is never quite sure.) All the while, numbers 1 through 5 (occasionally intersecting with 6 and 7) entertain each other with nights spend drinking, commiserating about the influx of “tourists” into the city that they call home, and then acknowledging the irony of their frustrations with Americans. These characters are so post-modern, dripping with irony, depression, and privileged malaise. They are also faintly unlikable and uninteresting.
Unlikable characters in a book are wonderful to find. The Humbert Humberts and Jason Comptons of literature are masterfully drawn and resonate in the canon of twentieth-century literature.
Uninteresting characters will doom a novel. In Prague, unfortunately, the most interesting character is an exiled Hungarian publisher, Imre Horvath, that Phillips requires fifty-seven pages to create in the form of an excruciatingly tedious family genealogy. Some of the more entertaining people in the book are inserted into the historical diversion but they never reappear to lend structure or moral support to the rest of the Western saps strolling in Pest, drinking Unicum and discussing the nostalgia fetish of number 3. The Americans (plus Canadian number 3) have their sexual encounters, their completely simple moral dilemmas and their 1990-91 era worries about clichés such as war in the Middle East, the possible anti-Semitism of certain Hungarian publishers, the possible post Cold War American spies in their ranks.
Stock characters are not necessarily a mistake. In American Dream Norman Mailer writes about anti-Semites, spies, homosexuals and jazz singers who appear to have come straight from central casting. But Norman Mailer doesn’t write dialogue like this snippet from Prague, an admonishment to the reader in the form of dialogue coming from bisexual number 7 to deflowered journalist number 5:
“You know what I like about you, little boy?” She licked his ear. “You miss all kinds of stuff. You just glide right through, totally peaceful.”
Phillips shouldn’t have to spend two hundred fifty seven pages of a work (to that point) describing the inner lives and neuroses of his characters only to sum it up in bits of dialogue, in case any readers are so distracted or bored with the work that they need expository direction. For those who haven’t read Prague, a certain amount of faith is required to accept this statement at face value but Phillips had already written volumes about John’s own inner turmoil, his silly infatuation with number 2 and his struggles to reconcile with his brother, number 4. A writer who produces good prose doesn’t need to insert summaries at key points in the scenes, the literary version of the laugh track.
It’s as if Phillips can barely contain himself, perched over his notebook, punching keys without restraint, Hungarian history books and Internet search tools at the ready, so that he can explain, again, how lost and without direction the characters are feeling even as they take in the accurate cultural kitsch of the prior decade. One can almost hear the words, swelling from the author’s mouth to fill a cartoon balloon. “Look at me, look at me! I’m writing. I‘m writing!”
But Phillips is to be commended for giving readers a clear signpost of the prose to appear in the book because he opens with a cliché. A group of Americans and Canadian expatriates huddle over drinks out an outdoor café in Budapest. The scene is set in 1990 and the swell of capitalism is riding over the city, bathing its war and Communist weary citizens with the promise of American-style financial redemption.
Granted, Phillips via the omniscient narrator, acknowledges the cliché of the scene but the chummy wink-and-nod to alert any reader that he, grand puppeteer, is jerking these unwitting people’s strings in a way that he knows everyone has seen breaches the faith a reader should have in the author. A good writer doesn’t manipulate his characters like puppets or malleable children through three-quarters of the book only to find, at that point, that he can’t untangle the strings. A badly written book, however, will arrive at that point and decide the only way out is to cut the strings, to dispatch the characters to whom extensive stage time was allotted in the more bearable first chapters. All the numbered puppets fade out of the picture, some grumbling, some with obscene gestures and the reader but can’t help rejoice when each goes without much explanation. It means the book is almost over.
Mr. Phillips’ book is available for purchase at Powell’s.