Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner, a talented American poet, has now written a novel about poetry, but don’t let that put you off. While Lerner’s poetry is often difficult, in a clever, self-defeating sort of way, his novel, concerned similarly with the failure of language, is a delight to read.
Adam Gordon is a young and neurotic American poet on a scholarship in Madrid, where he is supposed to be writing a ‘long, research driven poem exploring … the literary legacy of the Spanish Civil War’. Leaving the Atocha Station is, at least nominally, an account of this ‘project’ and a sort of ironic indictment of the bureaucratic texts artists are obliged to produce as justification for all that government funding.
‘The first stage of my project,’ Adam writes in the opening sentence, ‘involved waking up weekday mornings in a barely furnished attic apartment … then putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee.’
One of Adam’s many problems is that he knows almost nothing about the Spanish Civil War or its legacy. Nor does he have much interest in learning about it. He is deeply apolitical, unconvinced of his own talent and, indeed, of art’s ability to elicit any real effect other than perhaps its own failure to affect anything at all. When he sees a man crying before a painting in a gallery, Adam cannot bring himself to believe that this person might in fact be having a ‘profound experience of art’. Chances are, he thinks, this man is a performance artist, feigning real emotion, reflecting back to us our own mediated, longed for, but inaccessible relationship with authenticity.
For Adam – prone to panic attacks, addicted to tranquilisers and self-conscious in a remarkably astute way – fraudulence is the point where we begin, and from where we spiral out in ever widening circles of unreality.
The fifth stage of Adam’s project begins with the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Thrust into the public protests that ensue, hung-over and self-consciously out of place, Adam retreats to his apartment where he refreshes The New York Times homepage, watches the death toll rise and reads about the helicopters he can hear circling above him. Even in the face of tragedy, Adam remains largely incapable of experiencing something like a ‘real experience’ whatever that is. And ‘whatever that is’, is precisely the issue that Leaving the Atocha Station dramatises so well.
As a portrait of an artist as a young man in the 21st century, Lerner’s novel is a comic masterpiece. Adam is a wonderfully unreliable narrator: brilliant, petty, deceitful, profoundly self-aware, funny, endearing, and, on second reading, I think, loveable as well. As a meditation on art and reality post 9/11 and as a reassessment of narrative form in a world of internet porn, news, tourism, terrorism and instant messaging, Leaving the Atocha Station stands well above most American novels written this century.