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 he 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 terrible, start to finish. It is the work of a third-rate Victorian dandy trapped in the body of a Harvard educated Valley girl. On page 356, 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.
By Arthur Phillips
Random House, 2002
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. And 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 (p. 12), cheap copies of western clothes (p. 59) 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." p. 299).
Yes, folks, this best-selling debut novel is that bad. The characters with potential to be interesting are just awkwardly sketched composites of pseudo-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 strange...like 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."