At Fair Trade I finished Prague, Arthur Phillips’s first novel. He has a new one out there, Angelica, which Salon recently reviewed:
The extravagantly talented novelist Arthur Phillips seems to be making a grand tour of all the best literary genres. He kicked it off in 2002, with “Prague,” a tragicomic bildungsroman about an ensemble of young Americans desperately striving to have an authentic bohemian experience in early-’90s Budapest, Hungary. Then he tried a literary/historical thriller with the diverting, if baggy, “The Egyptologist,” whose narrator slides irrevocably down the scale from unreliable to outright demented. For his latest effort, “Angelica,” Phillips has produced an elegantly sculpted psychological ghost story told from four different points of view; it’s “The Turn of the Screw” crossed with “Rashomon.”
It also shares a title with a 2003 Sharon Shinn novel, the fourth, it seems, in her Samaria series.
I ended up reading the first Samaria novel, Archangel, which matches a fantasy and religion setting, a science fiction background and explanation, with what is clearly a romance novel for women. It’s still enjoyable enough for those who don’t like romance; it’s strong enough … just in the concepts and the writing … but like the Anne Bishop books (romantic, gothy BDSM disguised as fantasy … for teen girls) a little quickly becomes a lot and then too much.
Back to Prague. Thoroughly enjoyable, though a tad sad at the end, but not so much sadness in the plot as the overall mood. It was the end of an era, one might say, the end of the year John Price spent in Budapest, before leaving town for a certain, other city. The thing is, all the characters, by the end, are pretty much unlikable. Scott is a psychopathic ass who can’t face the reality of his upbringing, so he becomes an alpha male jock, fabricates, and becomes passive aggressive with emphasis on the aggressive. Charles has no real empathy, nothing but cynicism anda look-out-for-Charles mentality. Not an ounce of sincerity in his body; next to Scott he’s the one I would dislike the most were he real and I met him. Emily Oliver is a naive fake with daddy issues, Nicky is a controlling fake with daddy issues, Mark is mental, and John is a putz, a dreaming ass who 1) obsesses, 2) can’t see the obvious, 3) can’t make real decisions, and 4) misjudges. His officemate, Karen, with whom he sleeps a couple times, is generally sympathetic; Nicky is until the last couple dozen pages. The old woman and Imre, the old publisher, are generally sympathetic characters, though we always question who “real” they are, but they’re at least as real as the Americans (and the Canadian) around them, so it’s a draw.
The first part of the book dwells a great deal on period detail, proving the reader with experiences set in certain places that evoke the city, and for those of us who used to live there it seems real. The second half is slightly more fantastic, but more so it uses names and places but doesn’t really seek to make them part of the city; they’re just part of the city then, a certain type of fleeting excess of that first giddy year. And the second half of the novel is about dialog, it’s about explicit humor and irony, the end of nostalgia.
And so I can only recommend Prague. Recommend it highly.
Done with The Tea Party; half way though The Transsylvanians.