Saturday, April 25, 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Adam Gordon is a young American on what is basically a "gap year" in Madrid, a scholarship paid for by a foundation to support his research into the Spanish Civil War through poetry. A young, promising poet, with middle class parents, Adam is also self medicating along with a succession of white and yellow pills for his unspecified condition (he mentions at one point that he is bipolar.) In the first person narrative he begins with a regular routine, where his "project" is to see if he can actually feel any sort of "experience". He goes to the gallery, a short walk from his small loft room in the centre of Madrid, and looks at the same painting each day, having dosed up on pills and strong hash before hand.

Ben Lerner's debut novel, published in 2011, is part of a rich tradition of coming of age novels featuring young writers experiencing life for the first time. This novel almost seems a literary rites of passage for American writers - think "Less Than Zero", "Bright Lights, Big City" - but has its precedence primarily with Hemingway and "The Sun Also Rises." Yet taking place in 2004, this is yet another post-9/11 novel. David Foster Wallace's contention that our future novelists will get their experience from television rather than from real life is borne out here; yet 9/11 provided that unique thing for America - an incident that happened to them, without travelling to find it. Yet so televisual was 9/11 that most people did experience it on the screen. Replace "television" with "internet" and we have the contemporary experience as something that happens away from us, that our ennui is not caused by events as such, but our lack of events. So Adam self medicates. He avoids having a mobile phone (odd surely even in 2004) and wary of becoming the sort of American who never acclimatises, avoids the company of his fellow foundation fellows. He lives a bored, lonely life which eventually turns into something more real through meeting Arturo, a gallery owner, and a curator, Teresa, at a bar. He becomes part of this alternate Spanish set. They really are the beautiful people - rich, workless, or so it seems, political, as only Europeans can be, apparently promiscuous. Latching onto this life, his status as an acclaimed young poet only makes his own doubts even more vivid.

For Adam thinks he is a fake - that everything about his poetry is fake - he knows what he writes in his notebooks is made up, juxtaposed randomly. He is lying about his research. He is lying about everything eventually, using his decision to mostly speak Spanish, as a reason for his reticence. Bit by bit his unawareness that he is changing, that experience is what you do, not what you think about, comes out as his real "coming of age." In the meantime there are lots of drugs - but without any danger, it is easy to pick up hash from the dealers in the square, it is even easier to get through the massive stash of medications he takes for anxiety, sleeplessness, his mental state. The ennui is, anyhow, something that he pre-empts. He knows how solipsistic he sounds, how meaningless his life appears, how in even trying to apply meaning he is a dilettante. So much of what one expects from the unreliable narrator. There is something of the Jamesian hero abroad here - a man on whom people project so much, but which he gives little evidence of anything being there. Yet his personal insecurities, that manifest themselves in killing off and demonising of his absent parents, don't stop him being more than capable when he gives a reading or when he's asked to show his poetry. The reticence is seen as a sign of his seriousness.

Yet there's a sense where Adam is a fake, and his knowing that he is a fake is what is so key. Here he is, a funded rich kid slumming it in Europe for a year - the Grand Tour - and even if he avoids other Americans he begins to recognise a "type" like him, who appears Spanish, speak Spanish, hangs out only with the Spanish, but look closely, and you see they are deliberately separating themselves from the cliche of the American tourist in this subterfuge. If there's a protesting too much about this its because of how much more polyglot European cities seem these days; particularly in artistic, cultural and academic circles. The only poor people noticed in the novel are the African dealers, and after the Madrid bombing in 2004, they disappear, apparently rounded up by the previously tolerant police.

For yes, real life does come into this "gap year". Being so concerned about his lack of authenticity, Adam finds himself in the vicinity of "History." Yet the modern hero can do no more than queue to give blood, the rest of the time, joining the rest of the world on television watching what's happening a few hundred metres away. There's a more subtle question at play here, which is deftly handled, for the American becomes not just a bystander or a visitor but a representative of a culture - a culture where experimental poetry can do nothing, has no part. Anger over the right wing Spanish government's support of America is directly linked to Madrid being a target. Yet the problem with this "action" taking place in a novel that, like Houllebecq's existential debut "Whatever" is so otherwise inert, is that of course it is an appropriation. For Adam represents nobody other than himself. If anything he is escaping Bush's America, watching CNN for daily reports on deaths in Iraq. The novel is so through a solipsistic young American poet's eyes that the picture soon fades, and empathy is removed. The Spanish film "La Soledad" did a far better job of being obliquely there at the tragedy; but like McEwan's "Saturday" this is a novel where the characters are bystanders to history, untouched by it.

In many ways, how you to take to this short, fascinating, elegant novel will depend on how much you can take Adam/Lerner's self obsessive self awareness. There's a framework of sorts which helps - with "Leaving the Atocha Station" referring both to the Madrid railway and the Ashbery poem. In between learning Spanish and trying to get involved with two different women, Adam finds himself pondering art, and aesthetics. If nothing is real - if no experience is real - then how can the approximation of experience that great art promises be anything other than fake? He discusses Ashbery's line construction as one way out of the conundrum. It is a case, that the work of art refuses paraphrase, that it can be experienced but not explained. Sitting on a panel being asked about "Literature now" he wonders whether such a thing is impossible to discuss. He says he will never write a novel. Lerner, a poet as well, is nothing if not an accomplished trickster. He knows what he is doing, even as Adam doesn't.

I can hardly imagine a British debut novel being allowed to get away with the intellectual ennui, softcore privilege and consideration of itself, in the way that "Leaving the Atocha Station" does, yet this highly inward tale is a genuine pleasure; ideally read at a single sitting, where some of the more self-centred passages can be offset with the genuine quality of his writing. For Lerner writes long paragraphs that build up sub clauses on sub clauses, to create a similar hypnotic whirl to the self medicating head of the narrator. Madrid, and Spain (he visits Granada, fails to visit the Alhambra, visits Barcelona, and immediately gets lost and spends the rest of the day trying to find his hotel), are present, but hardly present at all in a sense, as the sensibility is that of the outsider. Yet America has gone as well. We know the narrator is speaking Spanish, so the writer gives us very few Spanish words. Its a deft act, which sees a self obsession, a self awareness that only occasionally becomes self immolation. As ever in these books, the narrator is puzzled by why the women won't make love to him (though one does, one doesn't - though she kisses him and sleeps with him) but at the same time makes no effort to tell them anything of truth. Like the elderly Strether in James' "The Ambassadors" the Europeans seem to appreciate the charms of the naive, unknowing American puritan, without the reader ever being that convinced by him.

There are a couple of missteps. The messaging with a friend in Chile who tells him a story of his "gap year" travel which Adam then appropriates as his own, seems a little too forced; whilst a scene where he expensively raids his parents' credit cards merely, it seems, to give his first girlfriend an awkward "farewell", seems to jar with the image we have of Adam as being a lovable fool; here he seems manipulative and callous.

Yet, despite this, I couldn't help but think its the best thing I've read for a while. There's originality here, albeit through a prism of McInerney, Houllebecq, and (especially) Ben Marcus, and similar material in Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" is so much more real. Like in Luke Kennard's poetry, Lerner has already pretty much admitted to or noticed the contradictions and failings of the privileged, self-aware but inert life of his protagonist, and holds his hands up half in satire, but half as if to say "what else can I do?" With a 2nd, apparently equally solipsistic novel recently published, 10:04, I guess there may well be a sell-by date on this kind of insularity, but you don't have to particularly like the flawed central character of "Leaving the Atocha Station", to find it one of the more interesting debuts of recent years.

2 comments: said...

The final sentence set me thinking. "I guess there may well be a sell-by date on this kind of insularity, but you don't have to particularly like the flawed central character of "Leaving the Atocha Station", to find it one of the more interesting debuts of recent years".
Is it necessary to like the central character to like a book. I recently received a review that stated my novel hadn't been the reader's kind of book because she hadn't 'liked' one of the central (flawed)characters. Surprisingly, she then gave it four stars.
So, I'm intrigued. Does an emotional reaction to a flawed character mar an otherwise enjoyable read?

Adrian Slatcher said...

I don't think you need to like the character, but I guess alot of writers try and make you have a particular sympathy for one or another - and sometimes that grates. In Atocha Station, our narrator is broken and busted enough that you can feel sympathy for him, despite his less palatable traits. I think some kind of sympathy is probably necessary?