REVIEW by Philip Maughan

NWR Issue 97

Leaving the Atocha Station

by Ben Lerner

For a novel which begins with a man having ‘lost his shit’ after seeing van der Weyden’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ in the Museo del Prado, Ben Lerner’s prose debut appears, on the whole, more interested in the stultifying limitations of art than in the possibility that it can provide meaning and catharsis.

Adam Gordon claims to view with intense suspicion anyone who believes that a work of art ‘changed their life’. Adam is an American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Spain (as was Lerner), and so what he calls the ‘disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf’ becomes an issue worth meditating upon. While he contemplates the impasse, he smokes hash, over-medicates, lies to sexy madrileñas and attempts to avoid being caught out as an intellectual and linguistic fraud.

And yet, while Adam states repeatedly his belief that poetry, as another over-qualified practitioner once put it, ‘makes nothing happen’, Leaving the Atocha Station presents new ideas about what poetry can do: what a reading of John Ashbery might feel like, what it means to live through language and to reflect upon experience. The narrative incorporates scraps of verse and sections of an academic essay on Ashbery (the title is from one of his poems), and juxtaposes still images against seemingly incongruous captions excerpted from the text – a process which resembles the poet’s delineation of his daily work, his ‘translations’:

I opened the Lorca more or less at random ... looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (‘Under the arc of the sky’ became ‘Under the arc of the cielo,’ which became ‘Under the arc of the cello’). I then braided fragments of the prose I had kept in my second notebook with the translations I had thus produced (‘Under the arc of the cello / I open the Lorca at random,’ and so on).

Adam wonders what relevance his practice might have to his ‘real’ experiences in Spain. His fellowship coincides with the 11 March subway bombings in Madrid, and yet it is his university buddy, Cyrus, who he feels has truly faced down History by attempting to resuscitate a drowning Mexican girl he had dared to take for a swim. This event is pivotal, and that it is described in typo-laden chatroomese does nothing to diminish its legitimate impact.

As an important American poet, Adam is invited to speak on a panel reflecting upon literature after the bombings: ‘Post-3/11’. He makes two good points before debunking the enterprise, the farce reminiscent of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, when Jim drunkenly infantilises the university Dean’s vision of ‘merrie England’. All speculation seems beside the point, and the attempt to theorise only distances Adam from the event. The epoch-changing terrorist attack has somehow been lost. The poet states that for all his scepticism, the idea of a ‘total triumph of the actual’ – a life without the ability to reflect, to reproduce and reconstruct in language – would be one that would up his medication to ‘the whole bottle’. In other words, for Adam, poetry – whatever that might mean – is necessary to experience.

Leaving the Atocha Station has earned praise from Paul Auster, Hanri Kurzu and Jonathan Franzen. Perhaps what makes this novel timely is its charm, intelligence and humour. It does not seek to define or capture, but reminds readers that we are still entitled to ask questions about art, and in particular, poetry, a form which for all its capacious intellectualism, remains a basic, instinctual drive.


previous review: The Bridle
next review: Knock ’em Cold, Kid


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