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Take a look at the reviews for Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner on Amazon UK and you might think the reviewers had read quite different novels. Their comments and ratings range from the one-star to the five-star, which reveal a lot about the kind of reaction this slim book provokes. It’s a bit like literary Marmite; you either love it or you hate it.
The reader’s first hurdle to enjoying this novel emerges in its first few pages, when we meet our protagonist and narrator. Adam is a young, middle-class American poet living in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship year abroad. Ostensibly, he is there to research and deliver a long poem on the Spanish Civil War’s literary legacy, something we quickly realize he knows—or cares to know—very little about. Instead, we see him stumble out of bed, peruse news websites, visit art galleries, smoke dope, compulsively lie, sleep with his girlfriends, read English literature, get blindingly drunk, pop prescription pills, and worry about his inability to feel a profound connection with art and poetry.
Presented thus, he is a spoiled and pretentious rich kid with very little to recommend him to the reader—just a very unsympathetic character. But it’s not all bad. Angst-ridden and self-obsessed he may be, but he is also a peculiarly introspective and self-aware young poet who, by painstakingly examining and dissecting his every thought, reaction and observation, offers a narrative essay of sorts on the nature of art, language, translation, poetry and relationships.
Indeed, far from abandoning academia altogether, he has devised his own “research” project. Divided into five phases, this takes the form of a diary of his time in Madrid, and serves as the only real structure in this novel. While the plot feels loose and baggy in its expansive time frame—Adam does very little in a year other than wander around Madrid, move from bar to bar, take drunken taxi rides to parties, and go on trips to Granada or Barcelona—there is an acuteness to many of his observations that lends the meandering prose immediacy and consequence.
Many of these insights are based on his overwhelming self-doubt and sense of fraudulence as an artist. What is art? Can anybody ever have a profound experience of art? Is all art artifice? In a dope-fuelled haze, he expounds on the limitations of his foreign tongue and language. One of the most intriguing aspects of his poetry—which he is unsure is genuine “art”—is the artificial nature of its creation. He opens a page of Lorca in Spanish, copies out the accompanying English translation, then scrambles or changes various words—so that “under the arc of the sky” becomes “under the arc of the cielo”, which is then “under the arc of the cello”. Is this the ultimate artifice or an intensely real analysis of language, poetry and translation? We don’t know any more than he does. Notably, he finds reading poetry in English no easier than reading in Spanish, as poetry is just as opaque and disjointed in both languages—“you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up.”
The same sense of uncertainty arises when we consider the way in which our narrator writes this diarised research. Despite the immediacy achieved through Adam’s observations, we always feel one step removed from his experience in Madrid—as does he—and occasional slips in the time frame, such as “I would later think”, remind us that this is a retrospective piece. Equally disconcerting are the times when Adam describes how he sees himself looking at himself from a different angle; this dislocated narrative acts as a deliberate distancing from actual experience. Tellingly, the only “real” event in the novel—a girl’s drowning in a Mexican river—is narrated over the internet by his friend; we, like Adam, are disassociated from the experience by the very nature of its telling. Near the end of the novel, Adam experiences the March 11 bombings in Atocha (though he notes that he was asleep in the Ritz at the time), but even when he is caught up in the subsequent anti-terrorist marches he is still unable to feel part of something. What does it mean to experience “history in the making” if you were asleep in the Ritz at the time?
Some readers might find Adam’s relentless self-observation tiresome. It’s not all serious, though. His narrative is witty in its juxtaposition of the banal and literary—“so, after I’d dismissed the Quijote, eaten, jacked off, read some Tolstoy…”—and in its comic exposé of the fawning literati. In fact, one of the great surprises is that Adam might actually be, despite his doubts, an excellent poet and a fluent speaker, as attested by both his girlfriends. A realisation dawns that there is a middle ground between taking oneself too seriously and being able to take oneself seriously at all.
Readers who take Leaving the Atocha Station too seriously might see it as an Ulysses-inspired exploration of the poetic self and the meaning of experience in modern society; those who don’t might consider it a rambling and self-indulgent autobiography (Lerner is also a poet and spent a year in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship) about nothing in particular.
But there is a middle ground. This debut novel is a stylish, audacious and self-assured debut that mercilessly exposes the artistic ego and, in doing so, both ridicules and humanises it. Its wandering and plotless prose might put off some, but it captures something very real about the foibles and struggles of a young artist. For a novel about nothing in particular, it says an awful lot.