In search of Old World cool

If the Age of Irony reached its comic peak with David Eggers and Jonathan Franzen, it's grown to full maturity in the debut work of a young man named Arthur Phillips. Yes, ironically, the apotheosis of coolness is a novel about Budapest called "Prague" by a Midwesterner who lives in Paris.

In a story of devastating emotional accuracy, striking intelligence, and irrepressible wit, Phillips follows five friends through Hungary in 1990. Here is a lost generation that knows it's a lost generation, a group of well-educated people who can sit at a European cafe and mock their imitation of the same dissipated scene from "The Sun Also Rises." Imagine Marcel Proust writing an episode of "Friends."

When the Soviet Union ended not with a bang but a whimper and the Berlin Wall collapsed, Eastern Europe seemed a golden field of opportunity and hipness – quite simply, the place to be.

"Budapest," the narrator notes, "just six months earlier an unlikely tourist attraction – began squeaking with new people eager to see History in the making, or to cash in on a market in turmoil, or to draw artistic inspiration from the untapped source of a cold-war-torn city, or merely to enjoy a rare and fleeting conjunction of place and era when being American, British, Canadian could be exotic."

Clearly, the advice of the moment is "Go East, young man – and woman." Phillips's novel joins a surprising number of books coming out this month that examine the expatriate experience: Ward Just's "The Weather in Berlin" takes a Hollywood film director back to his greatest success in East Germany; Gary Shteyngart's "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" follows the schemes of a young Russian trying to defraud a group of Americans in Prava; and Annie Ward's "The Making of June" plunges a naive Californian into the stark Balkans.

"Prague" focuses on a sensitive, principled young American named John, who's arrived in Budapest in a hopeless attempt to bond with his older brother, Scott.

The novel opens with one of its typically inventive moves: Some friends are playing an after-dinner game at the Café Gerbeaud in Budapest. Each player makes four statements, only one sincere. At the end, they earn points for correctly spotting others' candid remarks or tricking others into misidentifying their own lone truth.

In its pointlessness, its potential for abuse, and its elevation of insincerity to an art form, the game is a perfect metaphor for the treacherous arena these young people inhabit.

John quickly befriends every member of this North American enclave, except his older brother. He falls in love with Emily, a naive Nebraskan who works for the US ambassador and smells like corn on the cob. He hangs out with Mark, a depressed postdoc student who's doing research on the history of nostalgia. And he works as an undercover PR agent for Charles, a new investment banker who's determined to begin his career by extracting a few gems from the sludge of Hungary's economy.

The story moves fluidly, sometimes even dreamily, through John's experience in a culture that's swirling with nostalgia, deception, perseverance, and promise. With no particular skills to offer, he gets a job as a newspaper columnist from an insanely erratic editor with multiple accents. His assignment is to mingle with the natives and the expats and write commentary that's "punchy, snide, modern."

John is not naturally any of these things, but he can do a wicked imitation, a skill that drags him through a year of moral discovery, almost all of it negative.

His dedication to chastity, romance, and loyalty can't possibly survive in this atmosphere, and the emotional flailing he endures leaves him clutching old values he can't fulfill – or relinquish. His brother returns his affection with disdain, Emily ignores his entreaties, an avant-garde artist he sleeps with exploits their intimacy for her paintings, and he finds himself serving as a reluctant liar in Charles's scheme to defraud a noble old publisher.

(One of the novel's four sections jumps out of sequence to trace this publishing house through 200 years of Hungarian history. Structurally, it's an interruption that makes no sense, but like everything else in this clever novel, Phillips carries it off brilliantly.)

What afflicts all these characters to a greater or lesser degree is crippling self-consciousness, a nostalgia reflex that treats every current experience as the material for some future memory. Real life, meanwhile, remains always frustratingly out of reach.

These poor postmodern people are trapped in the refractions of their criticism. When John leaves a club after another unsatisfying date with Emily, for instance, he leans against the lamppost and smokes, but immediately he realizes it's "a moment sticky with clichés." Then he sees "the silliness of seeing the silliness of it, and feels the pleasantly dry, infinitely regressing amusement he can feel at his own expense."

Only the ancient jazz singer John befriends possesses the kind of authenticity he craves, but his slick friends deconstruct all her romantic tales. Trapped in this prism of critical analysis, these people will never suffer an "unexamined life," but their laser irony burns every potentially fulfilling moment to ash.

Phillips holds a precarious balance in "Prague," satirizing the rituals of modern culture while cradling John's desperate search for a worthy life. This is one of the most sophisticated and profound novels I've read in years, a witty, humane tale of a generation stumbling in a dim glow that could be dawn or twilight.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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