Ben Lerner’s much heralded first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station

“Nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is.”

Just graduated from a MFA program, Adam Gordon, the narrator of poet-turned-novelist Ben Lerner (1979-) has a year-long fellowship in Madrid to write a “long, research-driven poem exploring the…literary legacy” of the Spanish civil war. I don’t know what his grant application outlined as “research,” but his account of his year in Spain (mostly in Madrid, with side-trips to Barcelona and Granada—where he did not go to the Ahlambra) does not include anything I would consider “research.” Adam inhales a lot of hashish mixed with tobacco, pops a lot of tranquilizers, and imbibes a lot of alcohol. He has a sexual relationship with one Spanish woman (Isabel) and spends a lot of time in the apartment and bed (without coitus) of another (Teresa) and is sponsored by her brother, Arturo, a chic Madrid (Salamanca district) gallery owner, not only in two readings in the gallery but in an elegant bilingual edition of some of his poems.

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Adam feels himself a fraud as a poet and a failure at learning Spanish, though his chic associates reassure him on both counts, and for the reading from his book he reads the Spanish translations and his translator (Teresa) reads the English originals.

Adam goes to the Atocha Station not only to take trains to Granada and Barcelona (with Isabel and Teresa, respectively) but after the 3/11/04 terrorist bombing there (the Youtube video he watches is still online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50CKRJUXjzc). That “historical” event has no impact on him, but early on he went to the Prado every day to contemplate Roger van der Weyden’s (1438) painting “The Descent from the Cross,” in which a collapsed Mary parallels the crumpled corpse being take down from the cross. Not that he considers the Crucifixion the hinge of human history or is a believer…

The painting calmed him until, one day, someone else was planted in his usual plot and broke down into tears (a display of emotions of which Adam himself is incapable, but he had pre-empted that invidious contrast in advance by having “long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art,” including poetry. (My favorite line from the book is: “I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. “) With difficulty, he reads Lorca and Cervantes in Spanish, and makes frequent reference to the poetry of John Ashbery (creepily, Ashbery supplied a blurb for the novel) but is more comfortable reading Tolstoy in the musty English translations of Constance Garnett.

I don’t know how autobiographical a memoir the “novel” is, though Adam and his (definitely small-c) creator both poets grew up in Topeka, where their mothers were prominent psychologists, went to Brown University (Lerner has not only a BA in political theory from Brown, but also an MFA), and went to Spain on fellowships (first a Fulbright, then a Guggenheim). (I’d bet that Adam’s favorite movie from his childhood is also the same as Lerner’s the slacker comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” though it is unmentioned in the book. Lerner expands upon this in an interview by Tao Lin at http://www.believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_lerner. In it, Lerner also suggests that the novel is “a kind of virtual poem,” and eagerly asserts that “some of Adam’s more contemptible aspects and his tendency toward a kind of self-contempt and anxiety shade into my own.”)

The literature of American expatriates in Spain is small (Richard Wright, bits of Chester Himes’s memoirs, and Whit Stillman’s movie “Barcelona” and what else?), especially in comparison to that of expatriates in Paris. Lerner sometimes strings together Hemingway-short sentences, though also including more lyrical flights of descriptions. The self-centeredness of Adam reminded me of the books of Geoff Dyer (which I like better). The difficulties of understanding and being understood in another language more directly recalls Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never an End to Paris, particularly Matas’s encounter with his landlady, Marguerite Duras (who also provided advice as a writer to Matas, who really was her tenant in Paris). (In the Lin interview, Lerner said that “line of antiheroes cataloged in Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. is probably my most immediate company in some sense.”)

Although I think Leaving Atocha Station overpraised (the paperback opens with four pages of blurbs and extracts from laudatory reviews, enough to have put me off in advance, even though I did not read them until I’d read the book). I can see bases for considering Lerner “the American Roberto Bolaño,” though Lerner had only written one poet-centered novel) and I prefer Leaving Atocha Station to Tao Lin’s even more overpraised similarly disaffected, drug-addled-portagonisted “novel,”

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

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