Monday, November 12, 2012

Some thoughts on Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

I sat on the couch with a book after dinner and read until I had finished it, something I hadn't done in long enough that I was starting to fear I was no longer a reader. The book was Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, the perfect novel for this moment of my existence since it's about a literary type who either suspects himself or is in fact a fraud. It's the opposite of Catcher in the Rye: Holden is self-important and desperate to expose everyone around him as a phony; Adam Gordon (Lerner's protagonist, who, like Lerner, is a poet from Topeka spending a year abroad on fellowship) is constantly exposing himself as a phony, to us the readers if not his companions, toward whom he projects a carefully constructed persona, a man of few words because his thoughts are too complex to be expressed in a second language.

I loved reading this book, which is full of ideas about the self (the self!), about identity and worth, and funny enough that I was snickering like a jerk at nearly every page. Lerner is better known as a poet, but he's very at home in prose, and this is one of the few novels I've read that depicts the plight of the poet accurately, that precipice between potential and absurdity. (See Lucinella for another.) Because Leaving the Atocha Station takes place entirely in Madrid and its environs, where Adam is forced to speak less-than-fluent Spanish on a daily basis, usually while drunk and high, there is almost always a lovely doubling happening; Adam interprets most statements he hears as ambiguous and, rather than revealing his ignorance by asking for clarification, entertains all these options as possible simultaneously, so the world outside the space he immediately occupies hangs in quantum suspension. Too, language (and in parallel, experience itself) is always being interrogated, meta-analyzed: is it real? is it a mistranslation or misinterpretation? is it poetic pretension? is it cliche? is it the drugs talking?

Here's an example; in this scene, late in the novel, Adam is at a party with his friend, translator and would-be lover Teresa; his constructed reality is crumbling, and he has decided, uncharacteristically, to reveal self-doubt:
"You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or, " I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, "the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest." 
"Why do you keep speaking to me in English?" she asked, with something like concern. 
I ignored the question and went on. "But I'm worried you're too cool for me, that you'll realize I'm in fact a fraud. An inelegant fraud. I won't be able to fool you and you'll get bored." As I said this, I thought it would be impossible to hide my pills from her. I had a sudden, involuntary memory of the Ritz. 
"All you're describing," she said in Spanish, "is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, from English to Spanish." If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she'd weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.
Teresa started to remove her clothes and for a second I thought she had lost her mind. But she had a swimsuit on underneath, and she left her clothes in a little pile and slipped noiselessly into the heated, lighted pool, as if to punctuate the ease with which she could move between media.
I like how Lerner does exactly what you're not supposed to do there, explaining the symbolism of the image. It's more true to his protagonist, to articulate the meaning to himself and bask for a moment in its resonance, the last refuge of the lonely poet. It's also, paradoxically, less arrogant: creating an opportunity for the reader to recognize a symbol belies a kind of projected satisfaction. By making it explicit, Lerner removes the possibility of any readers being left out of the joke.

My only real reservation was about the ending, which was too redeeming and feel-good to be truly satisfying, as if to imply that after embodying failure for 175 pages, Adam (and presumably, a younger Lerner) could emerge fully formed and suddenly at ease with himself. I also disliked his tic-like use of the phrase "a wave of X washed over me," which was usually euphoria and usually small; though the book has many intentional repetitions, this one lacked resonance or meaningful intention. Still, a wonderful first novel and handy guidebook for the fragile ego of the overachiever.


  1. Replies
    1. I totally did. I like almost everything he writes.

  2. it is such a good book. Reminded me of Shoplifting from American Apparel, but with a narrative structure, even if it is built into the premise (the length of the book is the length of the fellowship).

    1. Haven't read that one, but interesting connection -- did you see that interview in The Believer that Tao Lin did with Ben Lerner?

    2. I didn't see it, but I heard about it and want to read it.