Leaving the Atocha Station Hardcover – Import, 5 July 2012
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The narrator of Ben Lerner's short but potent novel is, by his own admission, a fraud... A morbid fascination at his social awkwardness and self-destructive duplicity, and the tension created by a mind teetering on the edge of panic, are some of the more straightforward pleasures of the narrative. But there is much more to this beguiling text. We perceive an intellectual rigour and ideological coherence behind Gordon's masks; through these Lerner sets up profound questions about the possibilities of art and human experience... That the novel refuses to yield clear answers is no accident. Like the literature Gordon eulogises, its charge derives from the ambiguities that emerge from its contradictory propositions. --The Times
Hilarious and crackingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence. --Jonathan Franzen
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- Item Weight : 281 g
- Hardcover : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1847086896
- ISBN-13 : 978-1847086891
- Dimensions : 13.2 x 1.7 x 22.1 cm
- Publisher : Granta Books (5 July 2012)
- Language: : English
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What Lerner’s novel more obviously takes stock of are the blandest aspects of the poet-narrator’s day-to-day life in Madrid, including his skittish encounters with that capital’s younger, more progressive, literary set. Hailing from Providence USA, Adam, the novel’s main protagonist (and First Person narrator) has appeared in the foreign capital as a young American poet of some reputation and still greater promise. While in Madrid he must be seen to make plausible use of the generous research funding that his track-record and research proposal have earned him. Thanks to this fellowship he is free, for a certain period, to advance his poetry within a setting conducive to bi-lingual research and cultural exchange. Aware, however, that he may be unable to deliver the project he had over-ambitiously proposed, Adam studiously avoids foundation personnel and peer fellows; ignoring even their e-mails. He nevertheless manages (if reinforced by tranquillisers, drink, dope, and prodigious intakes of nicotine and caffeine) to weave his way into the capital’s contemporary art and poetry scene. As the days go by he gathers a widening acquaintance, and even entertains potential love interests (as though, for once, he were oblivious to the risks of mistranslation).
As to the smooth-running word-stream that embodies Lerner’s tale, could this betray a certain emotional detachment? For, notwithstanding actual content, what one notices most is the unmistakable whiff of First-Person-singular self-absorption. Whereas detachment would doubtless be routine in the case of a young, averagely amoral male let loose in a foreign capital, detachment is no less a trait of the post-modern poet who scarcely acknowledges his own creative process or product. These he regards as mere outliers; less answerable to themselves than to a far-reaching constellation of super-ordinate structures wherein material and social conditions are conjoined with linguistic practices and forms. How, then, could such a poet view the ‘autonomous creative persona’ as anything but the outmoded obsession of a bygone era?
In truth, apart from his diet of reading, and certain other reflective rituals that he schedules into each day, Adam’s accustomed routine is largely a round of banalities and bouts of free-floating anxiety. Indeed, courting the attention of peer-literati is not the least banal aspect of his sojourn in Madrid. To hype his literary persona in likely venues around town might strike even him as hollow; but the availability of beautiful, highly articulate young women somehow aids his concentration. Nevertheless, conceding power - even to this extent - causes misgivings that lead to episodes of crushing self-doubt.
Will breaking-news of a major terrorist atrocity (and its city-wide aftermath) jolt our hero out of his cycle of appetite, anxiety, doubt and defeat? Might headlong conviction (even engagement) now issue forth, phoenix-like, from the ashes of emotional incompetence? - Possibly so; - possibly not. Poems themselves might sometimes arrive in moments of doubt - and, indeed, serve as its legitimate expression. But how might ‘salvaging doubt from doubt’ seem to square with the poet’s own longing for validation; and how might this meet the expectations of sponsors? Meanwhile, the self-congratulatory fervour of a satisfied translator might upstage the poet’s own wavering belief in his original-if-provisional offering. Perhaps terms like ‘original’ and ‘translation’ cease to have meaning. Especially in this social media era, can anyone truly be anyone - or anywhere truly anywhere - given the perverse pre-eminence of language itself; - its infamously hazardous transmissions, uncertain locus and provenance, un-policed borders, unforeseeable trajectories and incalculable reach?
Perhaps it is the sheer theatricality of his privileged set-up in Madrid that emboldens Adam (on more than one occasion) to lie to his new acquaintances about his home life in the USA. When (possibly due to his own carelessness) these deceptions are exposed Adam promptly apologises, only to spin some mendacious yarn by way of explanation. Perhaps these false trails are a way of milking sympathy. Or might a total nervous breakdown be in prospect?
Yet, Adam’s penchant for lying serves to remind the reader that absolutely nothing he narrates should be taken on trust. Indeed, why might we expect the characters of a novel to be more reliable, understandable or predictable than randomness itself; - or more worthy of respect than false memories or mere hallucinations? No less remarkable is the author’s tendency to toy with passing descriptions in a way that deliberately fudges the matter, or leaves it just as vague as if it had been left alone in the first place. This slovenly effect is the more distancing for being consciously counter-descriptive.
If knowing what we expect from a novel might be a key to self-knowledge, less certain are our chances of understanding others. Some protagonists do understand, however, - even from the very outset - that the poet’s deceptions are just that: outright lies. But their rare perspicacity is revealed to the reader only at a later stage and (so to speak) long after the fact. Might this suggest that, not only the reader, but also the narrator (indeed, author) had been doubly hoodwinked at the time?! – Moreover, in the course of time, it may seem that Adam himself has been subtly misled in a manner that quite outclasses his own poor attempts at deception.
If the scheme of this novel comes down to the age-old axiom that ‘experience will teach us what we need to learn’ readers might not be surprised to discover that this regimen entails raw disappointments and bitter truths. Might some species of mellow optimism emerge as the end-product of this objectifying process? - Perhaps so. But, only by submitting to this curriculum can we ever hope to find out!
Rather than exulting writing, as too many books about writing do, Leaving the Atocha Station is almost disdainful of it. Certainly our narrator-writer cuts a truly pathetic figure - a mooching stoner who's found a way to put off getting a job a little longer, who lies to get women into bed and struggles even then. On one level this story can be read as the uplifting coming of age of the stereotypical millennial man-child, as our lead gradually realises his genuine talent for poetry and accept that it might be a legitimate way for him to live. Alternately one can see this as a Lolita-style case of sympathy for the devil.
But the point that occupies most of the book is whether such ambiguity is itself fakery, pretending profundity by saying nothing. It's a trick I find all too common in literary novels - the unwillingness to essay a concrete position, especially on moral questions - but here I find it forgivable, because the novel itself is the answer - not in a self-impressed, clever-clever way, but in a simple and powerful demonstration that this stuff does, ultimately, mean something, even if we feel like we brought the meaning ourselves. Or so it felt to me.