Illusions explode in blast of harsh reality
ADAM Gordon, the anti-hero of Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is a young white American poet, as is Lerner. It is 2004 and he is in Madrid fulfilling the requirements of a prestigious fellowship, awarded for the poem he has promised to write, which will explore the literary legacy of the Spanish Civil War.
‘‘ The first phase of my research,’’ Adam tells us, ‘‘ involved waking up weekday mornings in a barely furnished attic apartment ... putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee.’’ After this, Adam walks down to the Prado museum, where he stands in front of a painting — the same painting every day — Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross. Then, ‘‘ a turning point in my project’’: he arrives one morning to find someone else standing in his place — someone who, after long contemplation of the painting, suddenly bursts into tears.
Adam is troubled. Is this man having a ‘‘ profound experience of art’’? This phrase, and this uncertainty about the authenticity of his experience, becomes the touchstone for Lerner’s brilliant, hilarious novel.
It should not be important to the reader that Adam is a loathsome creature who lies about himself to impress his Spanish friends; who, when feeling unattractive and ill-at-ease in a gathering of beautiful people, assumes a special look, developed on many visits to New York, ‘‘ a look that contained a dose of contempt I hoped could be read as political, as insinuating that, after a frivolous night, I would be returning to the front lines of some struggle that would render whatever I experienced in such company null’’.
But Adam never lies to us, and because of this it is impossible not to care about him. Leaving the Atocha Station, which charts his year-long stay in Madrid, is an anatomy of a nervous breakdown: as Adam’s untruths become more complicated and his dependence on hash and tranquillisers increases, he falls apart. At the same time, however, he is re-making himself, finding his real self. This is not a hopeless or cynical book.
Leaving the Atocha Station has many layers. It contains a complex discussion of language and our experience of ourselves through language that takes place — as the best literary discussion should — in interaction between the characters. I don’t mean the characters sit around talking about language; I mean their exchanges enact Lerner’s ideas in ways that are funny, entertaining and profound.
Talking to Isabel, who will become his lover, Adam tries to understand her recent tears. He has been too drunk, too stoned, too self-absorbed and too ignorant of Spanish to know what she has been saying. Now, listening, he hears ‘‘ something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure I couldn’t tell; I heard the names of streets and months, a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car’’.
This failure of translation, in which Adam says he is understanding ‘‘ in chords’’ is not just a brilliant description of trying to follow someone speaking in a language we only partly understand; it’s also a reflection on how we translate each other in any language, and on our own absence from our lives, an absence Adam feels over and over again.
Moreover, it is a poem, and poetry is the second protagonist in this story. Leaving the Atocha Station takes its title from a poem by John Ashbery, one of America’s most beloved and least understood poets. Lerner’s novel is a homage to Ashbery, its passages on poetry and the difficulties of reading it transformed my understanding of the medium.
In the final phase of Adam’s ‘‘ project’’, during which he has made no attempt to begin his poem, he is drunkenly asleep in Madrid’s most expensive hotel while Atocha Station is being bombed by terrorists. When he awakes the city is alive with response, and in the ensuing weeks there is an explosion of grief and rage, protests, a change in government. Adam is with his Spanish friends but feels unable to properly inhabit this moment in history. He cannot have his profound experience of art; he is too distant from his own self, his own feelings. ‘‘ I was a violent, bipolar compulsive liar. I was a real American.’’
The most exciting prose is written when a writer transgresses, when they say what they were not meant to say about themselves or the structures around them. In Leaving the Atocha Station a writer who has himself had fellowships, written difficult poetry, learned another language, is somehow able to lay bare the potential for posing and inauthenticity in this way of living while making something challenging, funny and very beautiful. I’ll be reading this novel many times. Tegan Bennett Daylight is a novelist and short story writer.
The aftermath of the terrorist attack on Madrid’s Atocha Station in 2004