Ben Lerner‘s latest book, and first novel, is an act of genius from an age of irony, speaking right from the Id of our era to a disappointed posterity. F’real though, what’s not to hate? Some brooding, pill-popping white American male goes abroad on a poetry scholarship and wastes everyone’s time getting people to take him seriously. Does it sound familiar? Does it sound like you? Does it sound like everyone you know? Finally, Lerner wrote this book, so that all of the douchebags out there can stop writing this book. (Or this poem, or this song, or making this indie film, or delivering this self-important biography at a bar or a party.) Finally, everyone can just point at Leaving the Atocha Station, and say, “You know Leaving the Atocha Station? It says everything I’m trying to say.” And then they can shut up.
But enough about Lerner, let’s talk about me:
I came from a middle-class, middle-of-nowhere background and became an artist. I smoke cigarettes with equal parts remorse and grandeur, talk endlessly yet mysteriously about the drugs I take, and use a credit card with my parent’s name on it. I go to readings and think about how everyone EXCEPT FOR ME is an idiot for considering the work of the reader interesting and meaningful. I go abroad and meditate on my sense of Other, and not on my sense of entitlement. I have many complicated romantic entanglements with people far more beautiful than myself. I love John Ashbery and speak Spanish (poorly). I’m a liar and I think it’s glamorous. And sometimes, man, I just dream of a time when “I live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.”
I mean, RIGHT?!??
The protagonist of Atocha Station, Adam Gordon, is basically Lerner‘s fictional avatar, according to every superficial biographical parallel you can pick out. But Adam Gordon could really be anyone’s fictional avatar. Didn’t that sound a little bit like the story you tell yourself about yourself?
It helps my heart to think of Leaving the Atocha Station NOT as another piece of art from someone flailing around in the depths of their own ego, hoping to hit something solid. I want to think of it instead as a much needed peek-under-the-hood of the Brooding White Male Artist. (Aside: The acronym White Introspective Male Poet presents itself as a tempting device for this review.) Lerner‘s poetry is so good; could he really be wading neck-deep in the same river of bullshit as me and all my peers?
I like to think that Lerner is instead just fighting fire with fire. When it comes to beating up on the exhaust(ed)/(ing) figure of the narcissistic psuedo-artist, who better to do it than one of their own, using one of their weapons of choice? It hits them right where it hurts—right in the culture.
So yeah, I hated Atocha Station. But I loved that someone finally wrote this protagonist with a sincere intent to make him hateable. Finally, somebody takes the stance of anti-anti-hero.
But there are moments when the author stops grinding that axe and tells a story. And they’re beautiful stories. The protagonist’s account of the Madrid train bombings and of his final, extravagant date with “Lisa” are both gripping narratives, and interestingly, these moments serve to accent the god-awfulness of the rest of the book. Lerner is a man who actually can tell a story, which earns him the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t actually believe that Adam Gordon is romantic or interesting—he knows that Gordon is the plainest and most common thing, that we’re living in a world glutted with Gordons.
The best moment of the book for me involved an instant message conversation between Adam Gordon and his friend Cyrus, in which Cyrus recounts an accidental drowning that he witnesses in Mexico with his girlfriend, Jane. Gordon explains Jane as, “the daughter of a very rich and famous man, but had foresworn her fortune, at least temporarily, in order to live lightly on the planet, make art, and write.” [Please note Lerner’s use of “at least temporarily.”]
Cyrus describes the drowning in horrible, visceral detail, and to the reader, his account feels somehow authentic, unadulterated and unmediated by a sense of self. Cyrus recounts Jane‘s experience of it as follows:
CYRUS: She was shaken up in her way… But she also seemed excited. Like we had had a “real” experience
ME: I guess you had
CYRUS: Yeah but I had this sense—this sense that the whole point of the trip for her—to Mexico—was for something like this, something this “real” to happen. I don’t really believe that, but I felt it, and I said something about how she had got some good material for her novel
In this part of the book, Lerner demonstrates not only his ability to command a reader’s attention if he wants, or write a likeable character if he wants (as in Cyrus), but also a self-awareness that just isn’t present in most of these first-person meta-art bildungsroman. In Atocha Station, the author writes about the Madrid train bombings that he, like his protagonist, witnessed while in Spain on a poetry scholarship, where nearly 200 people died. Did Ben Lerner see those bombings in 2004 and think to himself, “Finally, a ‘real’ experience—finally, some material for my novel?” Is he using Atocha Station to ridicule himself for having felt that? Or is he ridiculing Adam Gordon and Jane? I’d like to believe that the first time novelist is holding up a mirror for his contemporaries, and perhaps for himself as well, to mourn an era of artists who are genuinely confused by their own notions of self and meaning.
If you truly connected with the protagonist and his plight (as an astonishing number of readers and critics seem to have done), consider this:
Early in the book, Adam Gordon goes to a reading and watches a poet perform. Gordon says of Tomás, the reader, “he struck me as a caricature of himself, a caricature of El Poeta.” He states further of Tomás:
“the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody…Then I was able to hear the perfect idiocy of Tomás’s writing as a kind of accomplishment, especially combined with his unwitting parody of himself…and I began to relax about my own performance… I told myself that no matter what I did, no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth.
So what is Atocha Station? A self-involved and tired melodrama, or some kind of meta-meta narrative on authenticity? Maybe Lerner will read this and let me know. If he does, I will tell him that those last lines that I quoted are beautiful, and worth the book to me, and that I’m grateful for the opportunity to mourn with him.