Il­lu­sions ex­plode in blast of harsh re­al­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Te­gan Ben­nett Day­light

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

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