Taking its title from a John Ashbery poem, Leaving The Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, is one of those debut novels that are dispiriting to encounter for any reader who aspires to write. This is due to the novel’s excellence which leaves one’s own prose looking rather impoverished and threadbare in comparison. It is tempting to furnish this review with nothing but quotes to illustrate the novel’s high quality but that would be lazy, and would ruin the thrill of encountering these passages in their original context, so I shall try to restrain this impulse.
The author, a published poet, is conducting a critique of the medium and its place in the contemporary world, and like any self-respecting practitioner of this profession since the dawn of Modernism, seems to be questioning its relevance in light of contemporary political realities. Set in 2004 during the Bush presidency, the novel is told from the perspective of Adam Gordon, a young American student of literature on a poetry fellowship in Madrid. Adam, like many a writerly American before him, is in Spain in search of experience and that elusive and most likely fictional beast, ‘authenticity’.
Possibly bi-polar, Adam is an over-medicated mess, who views his own personality as a collection of fractured pathologies, and suspects the same of his fellow-man. His sense of alienation is exacerbated by his tenuous grasp of Spanish, and a sense of his own fraudulence. While engaged with literature and poetry, he is as suspicious of the grandiose claims of art as he is of his own nature.
His fellowship, awarded for a proposal which entails writing a long narrative poem on how literature played a role in the Spanish Civil War, seems to be a sarcastic endeavour. Undertaken out of contempt for the overblown sense of self-importance often displayed by Art, it is a project which springs from Adam’s perverse relationship with culture, and one suspects it was submitted in bad faith. The obligation of completing the poem becomes a burden Adam deals with by studiously avoiding it.
Despite his predilection for dishonesty, Adam is not an unreliable narrator type character. We the readers are at all times aware of his falsehoods, which are perhaps the only thing he is honest about. The character may be manipulative but his sense of disassociation gives him a useful vantage point on society and himself, able as he is to observe and analyse his own actions with a detached clarity. While there are other characters in the novel, we observe them all filtered through Adam’s consciousness.
The primary targets of Adam’s fanciful constructs are inevitably young women. When we encounter two female characters who Adam is involved with romantically, we learn little about them, obscured from us as they are, by Adam’s perception of their essential interchangeability. The world and people in it are a stage for Adam to watch as he acts out his self.
We observe Adam observing Adam, as he wheedles and lies his way around Madrid, presenting himself as a poet of some stature and taking licence with his personal history. In Spain, he finds himself in an environment away from family, friends and the other various collaborators and corroborators of one’s past. He is free to be whatever he wants to present himself as, but as is often the case in scenarios which involve a surplus of freedom, he is uncertain of what this should be.
This fixed perspective would be tiring, were it not for the fact that Lerner has created such a compellingly unlikable character, who attracts and fascinates us through his repulsiveness. Indeed at times I sympathised and even identified with this pathetic character who should arouse nothing more than contempt. When History enters stage left, and conspires to alter Adam’s perspective, or at least raises the possibility that it should have such an effect, Adam is forced to his confront his nature and the truth of his place in the world. Without giving too much away the author resists a tidy and predictable ending, which is in keeping with the character and multiple interpretations are available to the reader.
Leaving The Atocha Station is an excellent novel and gives the reader much to mull over long after they have finished it. The prose is elegant and expressive, the wit razor-sharp. If you have an interest in literature and Art this novel is for you. Likewise if you like your humour acerbic you will find much to admire in this book. I for one was thoroughly impressed by this exciting debut novel and anticipate future writing from Ben Lerner with pleasure.