Posted on | January 23, 2012 | No Comments
I came to Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station via the bandwagon. I first learned of the novel from James Wood’s New Yorker review, which left me intrigued: a novel about the uncertainty of language, expat angst, and the appropriation of history in the quest for an authentic self? I may not be a poet adrift in Madrid, but a year spent scouring Berlin for self-referential metaphors left me prepared to sympathize.
Adam Gordon is a poet, insofar as he will admit to a profession at all, passing the year in Spain on a prestigious fellowship. He’s technically supposed to be conducting research for a long poem about the Spanish Civil War, but really, he spends a lot of time smoking spliffs, roaming the Prado, and arranging his face in ways that will absolve him of having to speak: “I realized with some anxiety that [Teresa] would expect me to be upset, very moved, that I needed to be so in order to justify my abrupt departure from the others. I turned back toward the fence, licked the tips of my fingers, and rubbed the spit under my eyes to make it look like I’d been crying, repeating this until I felt there would be enough moisture to catch a little light or at least make my face damp to the touch.” When his face fails to garner the sympathy and attention he requires, Adam composes lies about his parents—a dead mother, a fascist father, both sweet upper middle-class Kansans, alive and well.
While Adam Gordon bears some resemblance to Sartre’s Roquentin or even the Underground Man, his is a very twenty-first century kind of anomie. He not only has to worry about whether his experiences are mediated—his over-exerted consciousness interfering with the business of authenticity—but also about whether the world is forcing him to mediate it by yet another degree. The internet and cell phones interrupt the fantasy of the artist abroad, leaving Adam to construct a reality in which they don’t exist. He pretends he doesn’t have internet access in his apartment so as to maintain the extinct feeling that distance is not just spatial but spiritual. In one of the rare breaches of Adam’s well-kept isolation, his friend Cyrus reports on witnessing a drowning in Mexico, worried his girlfriend has thrilled to the experience: “She was shaken up in her way… But she also seemed excited. Like we had had a ‘real’ experience.” Naturally, their conversation takes place in gchat.
The mystery beneath all this artful distancing, beneath Adam’s intense worry that he is “incapable of having a profound experience of art,” is why he’s even bothering to worry about art in the first place. To get as far as a fellowship in Madrid to research a poem, even a fraudulent one, presumably requires at least a degree of genuine curiosity about poetry. And sure enough, when Adam finally abandons his posturing long enough to hold a non-self-subverting thought, it turns out his thoughts take the form of meditative mini-essays on John Ashbery:
The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately.
Lerner, himself a poet, has managed to convert this idea into a novel, to build something as concrete and referential as narrative out of a fundamental aspect of poetry (Ashbery’s poetry, anyway). He takes linguistic instability as his subject without giving into it in practice. In an interview with Bomb magazine, Lerner told his interviewer, “I was surprised—as you were—to find I had written a novel with a largely undisturbed surface, or whose disturbances don’t disturb the narrative, a ‘real’ novel, not a ‘poet’s novel.’” But I think what makes Leaving the Atocha Station transcend its caste—that is, what makes it more than just another novel of existential angst—is that it is a poet’s novel. Adam Gordon may have the trappings of some of his literary forebears, but where language dooms them to a prison of their own thoughts, Adam ends up finding a sense of purpose in language’s very irresolution. Caught in a debate about the political efficacy of poetry, Adam opts for evasion: “I said or tried to say that the tension between the two positions, their division, was perhaps itself the truth, a claim I could make no matter what the positions were, and I had the sense the smokers found this comment penetrating.” For a point about the futility of meaning, it’s awfully eloquent.