John Price, a 24-year-old American virgin, decides to relocate to Budapest when he finds out his older brother (who hates him) has started teaching English there. John, the new expat, quickly finds himself a journalist job and a set of English speakers to fill his time--his hateful brother, a overweight gay Canadian with a fetish for the lost past, a guileless midwestern girl with whom he falls hopelessly in love, a 72-year-old jazz piano player in a slinky red dress, and a soulless Hungarian American entrepreneur. As a year passes, John learns about love, sex, truth, history, art, music, and culture. Or doesn't learn, as the case may be.
This book got pretty rhapsodic reviews from every major reviewing venue back when it was published in 2002, but somehow it missed me. It's too bad, because I felt like Phillips had the makings of a great story rich in Hungarian history and an eye-opening critique of the dissolution of the Soviet empire and what exactly Americans let themselves get away with abroad. But the book was unfortunately too long, too sprawling, and often self-indulgent in the content (there were long passages that shouldn't have made the final draft). Parts also read a little too closely to a frat boy's erotic fantasy than I was quite comfortable with (anyone else feel this way?).
I also tend to enjoy a book when I know more about the author and find I like what I learn about him/her. Unfortunately, Phillips's interview in the reader's guide at the back of the book made me think he must be an insufferable human being whom (much like several of his characters) I would want to strangle if I were forced to sit through, say, a beer with him.
For example, the question was "How did you come up with the idea...?" and the answer reads
"Ah yes, my brilliant idea... however did I come up with it? Well, that's an interesting story. The short answer is that I have no idea. The longer answer is that I really have no idea..." (etc)
Ugh. Among other ughs. One of those instances I wish I hadn't know about the author. The bio in the front of the book didn't help, either.
There were also some problems for me in narrative arc--there was nothing binding the story together from beginning to end, except perhaps John's presence in Budapest, but ostensibly (at least as the book set itself down, including in its rotating narrative) this was an ensemble piece. The most interesting character by far was Mark, the Canadian nostalgist, but his thread of the story is abandoned without apology about halfway through.
All this vented--I must now admit that I quite enjoyed most of it. There were some stunning and laugh-out-loud funny passages that made me glad I'd persevered in reading. In many instances, Phillips exhibits that post-Dickensian (adverb-heavy) turn of clever phrase I love so much. There are wise and/or snarky observations throughout, as well, even if their impact is somewhat diluted by the less resonant content that populates the book.
For example, I was tickled by this post-coital reflection of John's:
"By then, John understood that some things mattered and some things did not and that happy people in this world were those who could easily and rapidly distinguish between the two. The term unhappiness referred to the feeling of taking the wrong things seriously."
So simple, so true.
Mark, the best character, leaves some real gems in his conversations and journals.
"Ponder this: a teenager in 1953 Hungary rebels against the fools who teach him and the foolish peers who sheepily go along with the Party line. It turns out, thirty-six years later, that that rebellious teenager was a moral, a hero of conscience. Question: Had he grown up in Canada, would he have rebelled anyhow just because he was a teenager? Survey thought: Is there a higher degree of nostalgia for adolescence among people who, retrospectively, turn out to have been adolescents under a system subsequently acknowledged to be immoral?" (269)
There's also a brilliant passage about "good old day"ism on page 213, which is worth reading by itself even if you never get to the rest of the book.
So, overall... worth reading, but annoying, but worth reading. I feel like the content I did get out of it made me a better person. And he does have some very nice language tricks. If you do read it or have read it, let me know so we can discuss. Also, has anyone read EGYPTOLOGIST? After my reaction to this one I can't decide whether I should or not.