Can a novel of contemporary life be both truthful and dramatic? Does it make sense to think of our lives as containing love stories, adventures, characters who “develop”? Or is it wrongheaded—is it embarrassing—to look for drama in the act of being oneself? These questions haunt Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, a second-millennium portrait of the artist as a young man that is one of the funniest (and truest) novels I know of by a writer of his generation.
Fresh out of an MFA program, Adam Gordon has landed a year-long fellowship in Madrid to write a “long, research-driven poem exploring the…literary legacy” of the Spanish civil war. From sentence one, however, it is clear that Adam uses the word “research” in a sense all his own:
The first phase of my research involved waking up weekday mornings in a barely furnished attic apartment, the first apartment I’d looked at after arriving in Madrid, or letting myself be woken by the noise from La Plaza Santa Ana, failing to assimilate that noise fully into my dream, then putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee.
Adam’s civilized routine conceals a state of constant near panic. As we soon learn, it takes all of his meager psychic resources—plus hash, meds, and alcohol—to fend off debilitating anxiety attacks. It also takes art. After his morning coffee and spliff, Adam heads every day for the Prado, where he plants himself in front of Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross and, in his words, “await[s] equilibrium.” This leaves him calm enough to work, “translating” the already translated poems of García Lorca into poems of his own:
I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me.
One morning, Adam’s research is derailed: someone else is standing in front of the Van der Weyden. Adam waits for the man to move on. Instead, he breaks down in sobs. To Adam’s consternation, the man goes from painting to painting doing the same thing (he “stood before The Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit”). Incredulous, Adam is forced to wonder whether the man is “having a profound experience of art.”
This early episode starts to explain Adam’s anxiety: he’s a poet who doesn’t have much feeling for poetry, for art in general. “I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art,” he says,
and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew …