One of 2002's best debut novels
Americans love frontiers. Unexpectedly, one emerged in Eastern Europe when the Berlin wall fell in 1989. The Gen X crowd went in droves to Prague and Moscow, and in smaller trickles to Budapest, Hungary, the setting for Arthur Phillips' ironically named first novel, Prague.
The time is 1990, and the gold rush is on for that eminently desirable thing called experience. The action revolves around a group of four Americans who socialize with each other in a select circuit of bars and cafes. In the case of Mark Payton, the American label is a mistake: Mark is actually Canadian. A graduate student, he wants to turn his dissertation about the culture and architecture of nostalgia into a book. For Scott Price, Budapest is a way station on a prolonged therapeutic escape from his family and history, which he blames for all his problems. Much to Scott's displeasure, his younger brother John has followed him to Budapest. John, whose point of view dominates the novel, is 24, an anomalous virgin with the habit common to his generation of turning his personal contradictions into easy ironies. During the course of the novel, while pursuing his obsession with Emily Oliver, an attaché to the American ambassador, John will lose his virginity to Nicki, an in-your-face artist with a shaved head.
John's sensitivity to Hungarian culture doesn't prevent him from being instrumental in ripping it off as part of a scheme cooked up by Charles Gabor, another member of the group. A native of Michigan, Charles actually speaks Hungarian, a linguistic gift he owes to his parents, refugees from the unsuccessful 1956 revolt against the Russians.
Although the beginning of the book is a bit bumpy with stage-setting, once we have a sense of Phillips' characters, their trajectories are moving, funny and above all, interesting. They never quite find the experience they're searching for, but in the process they turn a concrete, historically autonomous place like Budapest into a crossroads of peculiarly American schemes and dreams.
Roger Gathman is a freelance writer based in Austin.