Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. Coffee House Press. $15.00, 186 pages.
For the duration of Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s protagonist, Adam Gordon, is in Spain on a fellowship. If anyone asks, he is writing poetry about the Spanish Civil War.
Lerner is also a poet and has also spent time in Spain on a fellowship. His first three books were collections of poetry, and though Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel, it feels like a novel with a history behind it. It remains to be seen if that history is comprised of Lerner’s life or his art.
On a typical day in the first phase of Adam’s research, he wakes up, puts on the coffee, and rolls a spliff. When the coffee is brewed, he lifts himself through the skylight of his flat, drinks the coffee, and smokes. After the rest of his morning ablutions (which involve drinking espresso in the shower and taking medication), he heads to an art gallery to stand before Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent of the Cross. As he stands there looking at the painting, he does not have a “profound experience of art.”
On one non-typical day in the first phase of Adam’s research, a man begins crying as he stands before Descent of the Cross:
Once the man calmed down, which took at least two minutes, he wiped his face and then blew his nose with a handkerchief he then returned to his pocket. On entering room 57, which was empty save for a lanky and sleepy guard, the man walked right up to the small votive image of Christ attributed to San Leocadio: green tunic, red robes, expression of deep sorrow. I pretended to take in other paintings while looking sidelong at the man as he considered the little canvas. For a long minute he was quiet and then he again released a sob. This startled the guard into alertness and our eyes met, mine saying that this had happened in the other gallery, the guard’s communicating his struggle to determine whether the man was crazy—perhaps the kind of man who would damage a painting, spit on it or tear it from the wall or scratch it with a key—or if the man was having a profound experience of art. Out came the handkerchief and the man walked calmly into 56, stood before The Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit.
The substance of this passage might imply that it means something grand within the structure of the narrative, but it appears only three pages in. So early in the narrative it reveals Adam’s disconnection from art. This disconnect extends to poetry:
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.
A non-experience of art is the first of Adam’s disconnections in the book. Disconnect is the wrong word, even though Adam and I use it, because we never see Adam disconnect from anyone or anything. Unconnected is more like it. As in the passage with the crying man, throughout Leaving the Atocha Station Adam feels like a perceptive viewer annotating a screenplay.
Maybe Adam could connect if he didn’t lie so much. The first lie comes when he tells Teresa (a Spanish girl he might love who translates his poems into Spanish) that his mother died. The dead mother bit works well, so he uses it on Isabel (another Spanish girl he might love). The lie ramifies when he lets it slip to Isabel that his mother is alive. To cover the shame of being caught, he says that his mother is sick (which she’s not), and that he’s been trying to create a new persona free from her illness. As he apologizes to Isabel for lying about his mother’s death, he contemplates crying.
To keep his story straight, Adam decides to come clean to Teresa. It turns out she knew he was lying from the get-go, but she didn’t say anything because he has “poetic license.” Adam’s response betrays a complicated relationship with reality:
I blinked at her, first surprised not to feel relief, then surprised to feel an intense anger rising, as if my mother were in fact deceased and now she was calling me a liar.
To get back onto a footing he is comfortable with, he continues to embroider his life. He tells Teresa that not only is his mother very sick, but that his father is “basically a fascist.” This seems like a good lie because “maybe every Spanish movie since 1975, was about killing, literally or symbolically, some pathologically strict, repressed, and violent father, or was at least about imagining a Spain without such men.”
Adam experiences a number of phases of research throughout Leaving the Atocha Station. As he notes their presence more than their substance, I got the sense that he isn’t researching so much as marking the pivot points in his life by giving them numbers. Numbers help make sense of things that are connected even when we can’t put our fingers on why they are.
Even though we see no research happening in these phases, Adam writes poems which Teresa, a poet in her own right, translates. Lerner indicates that the only one who thinks that Adam’s Spanish isn’t any good is Adam, who prefers to speak it in koan-like fragments:
Our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.
Adam doesn’t need a translator; what he needs is his work to be finished by someone else. It must remain a possibility when it passes out of his hands.
Since Adam Gordon and Ben Lerner share some important similarities, it is tempting to say that the novel is not only about the way life and art have a habit of infecting each other, but also an example of that infection. But we must be wary of such an interpretation: it would allow us to read the novel as a veiled autobiography, an “easy” first novel for a poet to write. Even though Lerner is clearly the vector for Adam’s symptoms, in Leaving the Atocha Station he artfully considers more than the life of an artist. He ponders existence in this age of . . . of . . . something, surely.
We certainly feel as if we live in an age of some kind, but it’s hard to pin down what kind of age it is. Super-connectivity? Always on technology? Simulation? Decline?
Drawing on the aftermath of the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, Lerner comments on this reaching for “in the age of (fill-in-the-blank)” style remarks, particularly ones that involve the prefix post:
People were talking about politics, or everything seemed suddenly political. I overheard conversations about the role of photography now, where “now” meant post-March 11. A “post” was being formed, and the air was alive less with the excitement of a period than with the excitement of periodization.
This is one of those passages that offers the thrill of recognition: a character in a book thinks what I think! We’re not post anything. We’re where we’ve always been: we’re now. Periodization is so exciting not because it describes reality but because it introduces a cut into the nows we’ve known. The cut forces a change. There is no progress without posts standing sentinel at the edge of now. Stillness becomes a slipping backward once a post is established.
At times Adam feels like a more self-aware, much less self-loathing version of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (aided, of course, by prescription drugs). It also evokes Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, with Adam as the vagrant and Madrid as the city that leaves its marks on him.
Adam comes through unmarked, however, as almost everything Spain has to offer is mediated more than once, becoming less real with each stage. As Adam’s project moves through its phases, it recalls Baudrillard’s phases of the image. Despite all the mediation, while in Barcelona with Teresa, Adam is nearly overshadowed by the reality of the city. At the moment his panic peaks he escapes back into his hotel. But the hotel might be a false shelter. Buildings aren’t always interior spaces:
It was early dusk by the time we reached the cathedral, and in a Spanish cathedral it always felt like dusk, dull gold and gray stone and indeterminate distances, so I had the feeling less of going indoors than of entering a differently structured but nonetheless exterior space.
The upshot of this is that everything is exterior. The only thing inside is the reader, riding along in Adam’s head. Everything else is an interminable distance away.
In the last phase of my research fireflies were disappearing. Bats were flying around confused in the middle of the day, colliding with each other, falling into little heaps. Bees were disappearing, maybe because of cell phone radiation, maybe because of perfume, maybe because of candy. It was the deadliest day since the invasion began. Unmanned drones made a sorrowful noise overhead. It was 1933. The cities were polluted with light, the world warming. The seas were rising. The seas were closing in over future readers. Confused trees were blooming early. . . .
I wondered again if there were something wrong with me.
Much has been made of the mediated nature of Adam’s experiences in the novel, but I believe that the book not so much about mediation as about living in the interstice between the actual and the possible, between now and after.
It might be possible to get closer to what this novel means than I do through what is written above. I could write about how in the exact middle of the book there is a poem by John Ashbery and an extended rumination on it that seems to hold the key to understanding Adam, and possibly Ben Lerner. I could learn more about Lerner the poet, graph his ascending arc, consider that this is his debut novel. But I don’t particularly want to. I feel that the novel is describing me. I want to make sure that it is still in charge the next time I read it. I wonder if there is something wrong with me.
From Lerner’s “The Grandeur of the Parking Lot (refrain by Young)”:
Since Turner’s peaks and clouds have dwarfed
the figures, the canvas is sublime,
right? I’ve only looked at it online.
Maybe you had to be there.
Maybe there’s no there there.
In Leaving the Atocha Station Lerner is never so on-the-nose as he is here, but his book hints at how we live now, in the midst of a phase of our research, inhabiting the possible space between “maybe there’s no there” and “there.”
Chris Fletcher lives in Minnesota and writes creative criticism. He blogs at 10 Billion Canons.
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