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. 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. Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf.
To put it another way, Adam likes art that makes him feel OK about not feeling. He is a devotee of John Ashbery, whose work he loves for its elusiveness and its high gloss, its deferral of emotion: “It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading.” (The novel shares its title with a poem from Ashbery’s 1962 volume The Tennis Court Oath.)
Like many other young poets of his generation, Adam has learned from Ashbery how to flirt with intelligibility, and to make that flirtation the subject of a poem. “The best Ashbery poems,” according to Adam, “describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem.” Poems that make you attend to the act of reading, a painting that calms you and doesn’t ask you to cry—this is the only kind of art that he can face without embarrassment. It’s the kind of poem he writes, too:
Under the arc of the cello
I open the Lorca at random
I turn my head and watch
The lights slide by, a clearing
Among possible referents
Among the people perusing
The gallery walls, dull glow
Of orange and purple, child
Behind glass, adult retreating
I bit hard to deepen the cut
I imagined the passengers
Could see me, imagined I was
A passenger that could see me
It would be naive to say, of a poem like this, that it is “about” flipping through Lorca, or wandering through a gallery, or watching an airplane fly by overhead, or trying to make yourself feel a wound; at the same time, it would be wrong to say the poem wasn’t about these things, these “possible referents,” all of which have to do with not quite being there, not quite getting it.
It is, in its slippery way, a sad poem: Adam badly wants to be there and to get it. For all his postmodern sophistication, he is secretly nostalgic for direct experience, starting with his own year abroad, even as he despairs of the whole notion of being “abroad” in 2003:
Although I had internet access in my apartment, I claimed in my e-mails to be writing from an internet café and that my time was very limited. I tried my best not to respond to most of the e-mails I received as I thought this would create the impression I was off-line, busy accumulating experience, while in fact I spent a good amount of time online, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, looking at videos of terrible things.
Despite this steady drip of porn (or perhaps news), Adam does begin to accumulate experience. Isabel, a friend of his Spanish teacher, takes an interest in him. Together, they make the best of Adam’s bad Spanish, for instance, at the Museo Reina Sofía:
To photograph a painting—, I said with derisive mystery as we watched the tourists in front of Guernica, and then I observed her face as this phrase spread out into a meditation on art in the age of technological reproducibility.
Because he can’t express himself, she gives him the benefit of the doubt. This same kind of projection, Adam believes, carries over into the bedroom:
Her experience of my body, I thought, was more her experience of her experience of her body…and my experience of my body was her experience once removed, which meant my body was dissolved, and that’s all I’d ever really wanted from my body, such as it was.
For Adam, the lack of real communication between him and Isabel is a necessary condition of their romance. Fooling around with her is, in a nice way, like reading an Ashbery poem. It lets him be present and absent, turned on and locked out. It is experience once removed.
At the same time that he starts seeing Isabel, Adam falls in with Arturo and Teresa, a glamorous brother and sister who run an art gallery in Salamanca. The siblings take an interest in his poetry. Soon Teresa is translating his work. To Adam’s horror, he discovers that he has agreed to participate in a bilingual reading with a Spanish poet. The scene is a repeat of the Prado:
Tomás looked less like he was going to read poetry and more like he was going to sing flamenco or weep; he did not say thank you or good evening or anything but instead paused dramatically as if to gather his strength for what would be by any measure a heroic undertaking…. When the silence had intensified to his liking, he uttered what I assumed was the title of his first poem: “Sea.” To my surprise this poem was totally intelligible to me, an Esperanto of clichés: waves, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.; the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody. But then he read his second poem, “Distance”: mountains, sky, heart, pain, stars, breasts, river, emptiness, etc. I looked at Arturo and his face implied he was having a profound experience of art.
Once again, Adam is left feeling like a fraud in the face of art—only in this case, the art isn’t even good. As his tranquilizer kicks in, he takes courage from the thought that, whatever Arturo and the other listeners are doing or feeling—whether they’re projecting some meaning of their own onto the drivel Tomás reads them, or whether they simply feel “the pressure to perform absorption in the face of what they knew was an embarrassing placeholder for an art no longer practicable for whatever reasons”—they are certainly not listening. So there’s no shame, for Adam, in not making sense.
It is tempting to read Leaving the Atocha Station as a thinly veiled argument about contemporary poetry—partly because it is one, and partly because the author is himself a precocious and celebrated poet (his second collection, Angle of Yaw, was nominated for a National Book Award when he was twenty-seven1). Lerner lends some basic biographical facts to his protagonist. Both grew up in Topeka. Both attended Brown. Both spent time in Spain on prestigious fellowships. When Adam discusses Ashbery, he is quoting an essay of Lerner’s; and certain poems by Lerner sound a lot like Adam, for instance the title poem of his most recent collection, Mean Free Path:
I finished the reading and looked up
Changed in the familiar ways. Now for a quiet place
To begin the forgetting. The little delays
Between sensations, the audible absence of rain
Take the place of objects. I have some questions
But they can wait. Waiting is the answer
I was looking for. Any subject will do
So long as it recedes.2
Leaving the Atocha Station dramatizes the thinking behind a poem like “Mean Free Path,” its emphasis on forgetting, delays, and absences. The novel is not a bad introduction to the metaphors and constraints of much contemporary poetry.
It is also a dazzlingly good novel. This, I think, would surprise Adam. If bad poetry is embarrassing, the novel, as a form, seems to Adam completely out of touch with contemporary life in general, and his in particular. Instead of capturing “The little delays/Between sensations,” the distance between ourselves and experience, novels—in Adam’s view—celebrate Experience with a capital E. They belong, he believes, to the era of rail travel, profound loves, and irrevocable good-byes. They are hopelessly pre–cell phone. Like bad poetry, they take for granted the stability, the pathos, the dramatic interest of the self. What’s worse, they are fun to read: Adam spends the December break holed up in his apartment with Anna Karenina. Unlike, say, the heroine of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, he doesn’t feel understood by the novel. He revolts against it:
These periods of rain or periods between rains in which I was smoking and reading Tolstoy would be, I knew, impossible to narrate…. Not the little lyric miracles and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life, and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time.
To Adam even the major events in his life—his increasingly tempestuous affair with Isabel, his blossoming attraction to Teresa, a private epiphany in the back of a car—seem impossible to describe in fiction, because such events are “ready-made literature.” At the very moments when one burns with a “hard, gemlike flame,” Adam complains, “life was at its most generic, following the rules of Aristotle, and one did not make contact with the real, but performed such contact for an imagined audience.” Of course, there’s something funny about the hero of a novel complaining that novels are inherently generic and out of date (Adam has also been reading Don Quixote); Lerner plays up the irony by choosing this moment to throw in a sentence of lyrical description, a little novelistic wind and weather, making Adam “real” and undermining his argument:
This is what I felt, if it wasn’t what I thought, as I smoked and listened to the rain on the roof and turned the pages and smelled the wet stone smell of Madrid through the windows I kept cracked. And when I read the New York Times online, where it was always the deadliest day since the invasion began, I wondered if the incommensurability of language and experience was new, if my experience of my experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege, if there were happy ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, or if this division of experience into what could not be named and what could not be lived just was experience, for all people for all time. Either way, I promised myself, I would never write a novel.
The further you read in Leaving the Atocha Station, the more you notice not just the assurance of Lerner’s voice, but also how artfully he persuades us of Adam’s reality as a narrator (“This is what I felt, if it wasn’t what I thought”). Throughout, Lerner tries hard to overcome our skepticism toward the act of narration, a skepticism that poses special problems for the novelist today. As prose fiction is pushed further toward the margins of popular entertainment, as it becomes a more and more exotic form of storytelling, we notice its most basic conventions more. Like Adam, we are more apt to ask inappropriate, even extraliterary questions of a first-person narrator, such as: What sort of person goes on this way about his or her life? Why is a supposedly realistic character talking/writing in this artificially lyrical mode? What is the author trying to prove by writing a novel, of all things? These are questions that Augie March or Frank Bascombe or even the traditional narrator of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland are not equipped to answer, any more than Carmen could explain why she keeps bursting into song.
For writers like Lerner—a short list might include Lucy Ellmann, Todd McEwen, Geoff Dyer, John Haskell, Roberto Bolaño (in By Night in Chile), Sheila Heti (in Ticknor), and Grégoire Bouillier (in The Mystery Guest)—Thomas Bernhard provides another model. His narrators are case-builders, whether prosecutors or defendants, in the grip of an obsession. They command belief thanks to the single-minded intensity of their arguments. Hallmarks of Bernhard’s legacy include the outraged italic (“a profound experience of art“), the preemptive self-deflating tic (“such as it was”), the helpless repetition of totem words (“experience”), and most of all the angry promise—explicit or implied—that the narrator would never write a novel.
Lerner stands out in this mini-tradition both for his love of intricate patterns and echoes and for his use of interruptions. Other characters keep intruding on Adam’s story, unexpectedly shifting the novel’s perspective. So, for example, in the middle of his Tolstoy-reading idyll, Adam receives an instant message from his friend Cyrus in Mexico, who has just witnessed a swimming accident. Lerner turns the inane give-and-take of instant messaging into a kind of chorus of dread:
CYRUS: We laid her on the bank and I gave her or tried to give her mouth to mouth. She didn’t seem, I can’t really say what I mean by this, given that she wasn’t breathing, but she didn’t seem dead. Her white
ME: jesus, man
ME: i don’t even know how to give cpr
CYRUS: shirt, her undershirt, was pulled up over her head. I had to pull it back down over her breasts. Which was somehow embarrassing. She was cut up pretty bad
CYRUS: Neither do I, really. I tried. She kind of, I don’t know, threw up in my mouth
ME: you mean was revived—spit out water—so she was alive
CYRUS: No. There was vomit in her mouth I guess. And then I threw up onto the bank. She was dead
After the woman drowns, Cyrus and his girlfriend have a big fight that, in Cyrus’s telling, takes us, amazingly, back to the argument about novels and novel-writing, this time in an entirely new key:
CYRUS: …I had this sense—this sense that the whole point of the trip for her—to Mexico—was for something like this, something this “real” to happen. I don’t really believe that, but I felt it, and I said something about how she had got some good material for her novel
ME: is she writing a novel
CYRUS: Who knows
This IM exchange marks a turning point in Adam’s Spanish adventure; I think it’s not incidental that this turning point should take place while he’s sitting at the computer. Since David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it has been one task of the realist novel to describe or at least acknowledge the portion of our lives spent looking at a screen. To make this interface the central subject of the novel is to write satire. To avoid describing this interface, or to play down its effects, is to write either historical fiction or a new version of pastoral.
For Adam and Cyrus, there is nothing in between: on the one hand, what Adam likes to call “the white machine of life,” where an accidental drowning flickers across the screen among a series of nonevents (reading, thinking, looking at porn); on the other, the “something ‘real’” of conventional novels, where travel, love, and disaster lend the protagonist a kind of weight or depth that neither Adam nor Cyrus feels. Lerner shows a more sophisticated sense of what the novel can be. His account of the drowning is both satirical and warm.
A few days later, Adam retells the story—starring himself—to try to gain an advantage over Isabel when she’s about to break up with him. The real threat to compassion isn’t the Internet; it’s our need to control the people around us. No subject could be more traditional. Toward the end of the novel, Adam finds himself outside Madrid’s Atocha train station, minutes after the al-Qaeda bombing of March 11, 2004. He sees the wounded and the medics; he takes part in the protests that bring the Socialists to power; and yet, far from being swept up by history in the making, he spends the whole time in a jealous funk. Lerner doesn’t punish Adam for his pettiness. This is the stuff real people and real novels are made of.
On careful reading, Leaving the Atocha Station turns out to be both an experimental and a self-consciously traditional book. Adam’s romances follow a pattern that goes back to Plato—one that will be familiar to any Trollope fan: a blind stumble from desire and misunderstanding, with Isabel, toward mutual comprehension, with Teresa. His progress is strewn with sly allusions, for instance to the moment in Anna Karenina when Stiva, caught by his wife in an infidelity, can’t make himself stop smiling. Here it’s Adam whose unwanted (stoned) smile takes on a life of its own:
All I needed to say was that I’d zoned out,…but I couldn’t think how to say this or any other thing. Worse, the smile came back automatically as I guessed they were telling me how fucked up it was to react to whatever Isabel was describing in this way.
Tolstoy is only one of the ghosts who haunt the novel. As we’ve seen, Adam is the sort of narrator who quotes Walter Pater and Georg Lukacs without attribution (and within the space of one page); in one little salute he recaps the “Overture” to Swann’s Way and captures some of its humor too: “When I woke I was for a moment unsure of my surroundings, then remembered the spontaneous trip, the train, and again wished Teresa could see me interleaved with Isabel, her jet hair splayed against the heavily starched sheets.” Such nods to the Great Big Books are unobtrusive. In each case, Lerner is simply reminding us of what, thanks to the classical novel, we know about real life at its most intimate, and reminding us how little that has changed.