Arthur Phillips, author of Prague, is a talented prose stylist. His sentences are full of weird metaphors and unexpected twists that bring scenes to life. People vary in their ability to use words to convey (in this, fictional) experience. Phillips is able to convey scenes, facial expressions, the implicit meanings of conversations, and subjective feelings which a lesser prose stylist would be unable to convey. A lesser prose stylist would have to fall back on simpler and more formulaic descriptions. That said, it's a matter of taste: I sometimes found the book too noisy, too rich in detail that is lively and original but not obviously relevant.
Phillips also comes up with a smorgasbord of very different characters, with interesting interactions and contrasts. The main characters are:
Mark Payton, a Canadian scholar who is writing a history of nostalgia, an expansion of his doctoral dissertation. His erudite obsession with the theme of nostalgia is simultaneously funny and profound. Nostalgia is not just his doctoral dissertation; its his philosophy of life; or rather, Mark Payton is a philosophy who is really a philosophy personified. Payton loves for the past, yearns for the past, thinks all the good things are in the past-- a pessimistic philosophy, which does not, of course, wholly make sense. Payton wants to escape the trap of nostalgia, of always living out patterns; he wants to live in the present, but he can't. His monologues tend to bewilder and bemuse the other characters, yet most of them experience his influence a bit.
Charles Gabor, a Hungarian-American M.B.A. working for a venture capital firm. Gabor turns out to be rather the villain in the end, but he's likable. He's the most self-confident, active, worldly-successful of the characters. He is to some extent a symbol of capitalism.
Emily Oliver, the Nebraska farm girl who works for the embassy, incapable of lying, who never swears, loyally admiring her unappealing military father. John Price falls in love with her, and as a result there are two Emily Olivers in the novel: the real Emily Oliver, and the Emily Oliver John is always fantasizing about. John is an obvious case of "love is blind," and it's clear that readers are meant to discount the apotheosis of Emily Oliver that is constantly taking shape in John's lovesick imagination. The interplay between these two Emily Olivers is very interesting. Every time Emily Oliver appears in the action, the reader jumps to attention, thinking: Did John Price see something I didn't? He's obviously not seeing quite clearly here, but is there some justification for his lyrical thoughts?
Nikki M. A bald girl and a photographer/painter of contemporary art. She becomes John Price's lover, though she also has lesbian leanings. Nikki is one of the most original characters in the book. Not wholly likable, but she is frank and candid, rebelliously so. A bit rough and cynical about both art and sex, but that is part of her candor. Her relationship with John always strikes me as a bit grotesque.
Imre Horvat. The latest in a long line of owners of the Horvat Press, a historic Budapest institution, Imre Horvat ran his family business briefly in the immediate post-war years, before being dispossessed and put into a prison camp by the Communists. He is released and returns to his press as an ordinary worker, but then, in the brief anti-Soviet revolution of 1956, he takes the helm again for 13 days to proclaim the revolution, before being driven into exile when the Soviets re-invade Hungary. He spends the next 33 years in Austria, seeking to keep alive "the memory of the Hungarian people," a leader of resistance to the Communists. He enters the story because when the Communist regime falls in 1989, he wants to acquire his own Horvat Press-- run by the Communists for 33 years-- and he turned to Charles Gabor's venture firm for capital. Charles Gabor then intrigues with the help of John Price to make a lucrative deal by positioning himself to be Imre Horvat's heir. Horvat is the grandest character of the book, who cuts a heroic figure as against the "Lost Generation" young people.
John Price. Overall, Prague is an omniscient-narrator novel: we see the action through the eyes of many different characters, even including a 19th-century aristocrat, former proprietor of one of the buildings where some of the action takes place. However, John Price is Phillips' preferred main character. John Price comes to Budapest to see his brother, whom he has looked up to for years even though Scott never treats him well; he finds a job with the new English-language Budapest newspaper as a sort of op-ed columnist (some of his writing is quoted: he is a lively stylist and his writing is rich with irony; much like Arthur Phillips himself) and his one-year stay defines the beginning and end of the novel's action. He is 24/25 years old. Price is sympathetic but not admirable. You tend to feel "his heart is in the right place," so to speak, but he doesn't have any fixed moral principles and is drawn, for example, into a sleazy scheme by Charles Gabor just for the fun of it, so to speak, without apparently ever thinking through its moral implications. John Price is a learning character: he loves observing, he is interested in many things, he is always drawing a sort of odd, fragile lessons from life, trying to understand it as best he can. I never feel he gets things quite right, and I tend to think-- though Phillips doesn't want me to-- that Price is too much of a spoiled California kid uncritically accepting the menu of liberal values. Perhaps he is a cameo of Arthur Phillips himself?
Prague represents a certain time and place in history vividly, and a time and place of considerable significance. That is a creditable service, a contribution to historical knowledge, because while the characters are fictional, facts and moods and the way history felt are woven into the account. And a novelist who can invent a cast of such original and distinctive characters deserves some credit. But what's missing is some loftier theme that communicates itself, or even merely intimates itself, through the novel's pages. Disparate insights are scattered through the text but they never cohere into anything. In the end, if I were going to sum up the takeaway from Prague-- what is the message, behind all the prose stylism and humorous ironic conversations-- that the author is sending to the reader?-- I feel like it would be "What the heck do I know?"