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Bozos in Budapest

08.08.2002 | BOOKS

By Arthur Phillips
Random House, 2002

As a publishing industry event, Arthur Phillip's Prague had to happen. As literature, the book has no reason to exist.

The very idea of a "90s expatriate novel" is flawed. The true expat novel is a messy stack of lined, beer-stained notebook paper, its author naked and passed out on a sofa-bed with a seventeen year-old named Blanka. Expat art is best expressed in short, more napkin and matchbook-based forms: the comic strip, the article, the confessional poem, the song, maybe the comedic screenplay. When someone pulls out a 350-page manuscript about expats in post-communist Europe, I reach for my revolver.

Basing a novel on a flawed concept is forgivable; executing that concept this badly is not. Arthur Phillips writes with the stiff pretensions and polished self-consciousness of the fiction seminar nerd, the kid with smarts but little music, a vocabulary but no handle on it. And if Phillips could make his own name an adverb, he would. Prague is a place where characters "squawk distortedly" and "invariably declare" things to be "a little inexplicable" and "elegantly incontrovertible"; where buildings look "positively exotic" and people have "up-beatitude"; where eyebrows are "engineered for expressivity"; where jokes--if not "immediately exempt from laughability"--are "bittersweetly hilarious"; where memories "burrow slickly" and where "entirely revealing" facts are defined by their "sheer, scarcely tolerable intrusiveness." 

The prose is limp-wristed and piss-poor, start to finish. It is the work of a third-rate Victorian dandy trapped in the body of a Harvard educated Valley girl. Eventually, we learn two things. We learn that "Emily's bungalow had persistently proclaimed its emptiness, and her telephone its unreceptive solitude," and we learn that anybody can publish a novel in 2002. Just slap a picture of the Charles Bridge on the cover and call it Prague. Then crank up the publicity machine and hope another 20,000 Amazon shoppers mistake it for a guidebook.

Ultimately Prague is about nothing. In the opening pages, the characters are sitting in a café, a scene the author describes as one of "total insignificance, and not without a whiff of cliché."  He's right, but the kindergarten rule of writing is "show, don't tell," and if it's the writer's intention to portray a scene in a horribly self-conscious light, let the author do that through dialogue; and when the story is this weak, it better damn well be funny or bright. But by inserting this caveat in a meatloaf of awful prose, Phillips absolves himself of any responsibility for how bad it is and uses self-consciousness as an excuse for ineptitude.

The story, as the author himself might write, could scarcely be duller. The year is 1990, and four Americans and a Canadian are living in Budapest. There's Scott and John Price, English teacher and venture capitalist. There's Emily, chirpy assistant to the U.S. Ambassador. There's Mark, gay post-graduate student. And there's Charles, reporter for the fledgling BudepestToday newspaper.

We follow this crew into the cafes and jazz clubs of Buda, and over the bridges and down the streets of Pest. It is a singularly boring experience. Their conversation is at or below the level of green expat bull sessions, filled with the inane and the obvious. The reader is treated to such profound insights into post-Communist Europe as bad service, cheap copies of western clothes and, in one of the author's more embarrassing moments, strip clubs. ("[T]he girl removed her clothing with such velocity and facility that John realized how much more practiced strippers are at undressing than the average person.").

Yes, folks, this best-selling, critically acclaimed debut novel is that bad. The characters with potential to be interesting are just awkwardly sketched composites of psuedo-intellectual hipster lightweights. Mark Payton is supposed to be a frantic, brilliant eccentric, obsessed with the mysteries of time and driven by a quixotic 19th century quest to quantify nostalgia, but Phillips can only muster a bad copy of a stock stoner. Witness Mark the crazy intellectual gushing to John about how strange "1990" looks on the front page of a newspaper:

You know how in the first couple weeks of January the dates on newspapers look they're from science fiction? Like 1990? Not 1989 anymore? This is the latest in the year this has ever happened. I mean, it's July, but the date has that science-fictiony feel today. When I saw the paper I was amazed--I saw this paper and I was, like, July 14th, 1990? That looks bizarre.

If you met this guy in a hostel, you'd ignore him. If he kept bugging you like this, you'd hit him. But in Prague such thoughts are the chin-scratching stuff of genius. "John listened to his friend speak," writes Phillips, "and wondered what made a man like Mark Payton worry about the things he worried about...[he] must have some lurid, offbeat appeal in whatever dark grounds of sexual hunting his type was compelled to stalk in post-Communist Central Europe." John's "offbeat" friend may in fact have haunted the city's "dark grounds" for cheap sex, but Phillips would rather swell his book with adolescent dialogue than take us along.

Then there's Charles Gabor, the American son of Hungarian émigrés who writes a column and covers business for an English-language weekly. He does the heavy lifting in giving Prague a "generational" twist, and carries water for some caricature of Gen-X sass Phillips probably picked up reading Douglas Coupland a decade ago. Here's a taste from one of Charles's bad-boy columns:

Who won the Cold War? We did. Our Generation. Our sacrifices broke the Communist behemoth, Yes, granted, okay: Our parents lived through the flickering black-and-white footage days of the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam. But those of us born under Johnson, Nixon, and Ford--we are the triumphant generation. We faced Armageddon from birth...and we never blinked. Who brought down the Berlin Wall? You and me, Jack, you and me."

On and on, annoyingly on, it goes.

If Charles and Mark represent the high end of character development in Prague, then Embassy Emily is the dregs. At one point, the just-happy-to-be-here assistant to the ambassador is found in a phone booth, saying: "The band's pretty neat. Old stuff, like jazz music and stuff, but it's a neat bar. We should hang here sometime. Yeah, okay, I will. See ya, crazy!"

As for Budapest, the city stays in the background, and Prague could just as easily have been set in Warsaw--or London. The Hungarians are largely absent, and when they do appear you wish Phillips hadn't bothered. (Typical Hungarian dialogue: "John Price? You are not healthful? Scott is being absent.").

Then, Prague. The city that Arthur Phillips would like us to believe is the "idea" driving the novel, its Moby Dick and its Oz. Prague is alluded to a total of four times in the book as an idealized alternative to doudy Budapest with its lesser fame and foreign investment. But four throw-away lines do not a sustained motif make. What they do constitute is a gimmick.What's left is just a bad example of the single young adult genre with Prague reduced to a facile marketing trope, a postcard clumsily pasted on with the author's precious spit.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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