Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner – review

Jenny Turner is dazzled by a clever debut about a poet-poseur

Nothing is more American – "whatever that means" – than running away to Europe, avoiding your countryfolk, pretending not to be American at all. "If you looked around carefully, as you walked through the supposedly least touristy barrios, you could identify young Americans whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise, probably living on savings or giving private English lessons to rich kids …" Our narrator isn't so bothered about the usual sorts of American tourist, the "barbate backpackers" and the ones with "fanny packs". But he really hates the would-be expatriate intellectuals "who, when they spoke Spanish, exaggerated the peninsular lisp", and hates them mostly – as will be obvious – because he is one of them himself.

Adam Gordon – as the author calls the narrator – is a young American poet, in Madrid on a fellowship in 2004. Supposedly, he is working on composing "a long and research-driven poem, whatever that might mean" about the Spanish civil war. But really, his "research" is taking quite a different shape. Mostly, it involves dodging engagements at "the Foundation" that is funding him, while reading Lorca, and following the Iraq occupation on the New York Times online. He self-medicates with spliffs and anti-depressants and anxiolytics. He parties with beautiful young Madrileños, some of whom work in galleries, some in language schools. Towards the end, he witnesses the aftermath of the 11-M commuter-train bombings, attributed to followers of al-Qaida – presumably one reason the book is named after Madrid's main station, another being that it's also the title of an early John Ashbery poem.

Adam's research is divided into clear phases. In the first, he spends his time looking at paintings in the Prado. One day, he watches as another spectator bursts into tears in front of Van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross – "was he having a profound experience?" The novel reproduces a detail from the painting – Joseph of Arimathea, the wetness rolling down his cheeks. Shortly after, Adam impresses a glamorous young woman by pretending his mother has just died: "I … licked the tips of my fingers and rubbed the spit under my eyes … repeating this until I felt there would be enough moisture to catch a little light." The overall narrative is structured round such subtle, delicate moments: performances, as Adam would call them, of intense experience. They're comic in that obviously, Adam is an appalling poseur. But they're also beautiful and touching and precise.

Leaving the Atocha Station is Ben Lerner's first novel. Before it, he published three well received books of small-press modernist poetry, and probably no one will be surprised to hear that he has indeed spent a year doing some sort of research in Madrid. Sometimes, he uses the novel form for meditations on his chosen medium: "When she read [my poems] to me I felt that she had carried a delicate, mirrored thing down a treacherous path." Other times, he uses it for rangy, Innocents Abroad-type speculation: "Maybe every Spanish movie made since 1975 was about … liberated women rediscovering their joie de vivre with the help of their colourful gay friends." The very best bits do both at once, splintering, for example, on Adam's imperfect relationship with the Spanish language. "She paused for a long moment and then began to speak: something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn't tell … I formed several stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand them than that I understood in chords."

It isn't often that first novels by small-press modernist poets get picked up by publishers like Granta, but then, it isn't often that any book comes with advance praise from James Wood, Paul Auster, James Meek and Jonathan Franzen. In his original endorsement, Franzen went on to link Lerner's novel to the case of the Swedish academician who, a few years ago, attacked American writing as insular and self-involved. Was it, Franzen wondered, stuff like Lerner's that "annoyed" him? Is this old world "annoyance", in other words, largely envy and fear? Because it's true, there is something frightening about these brilliant young American writers, with their smart drugs and their smartphones and their staggeringly well-resourced educations – "I wondered … if my experience of my experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege," as Lerner has Adam say. What can come after such intensity of sadness and cynicism? What can come after such intensity of intensity itself?

"I tried hard to imagine my poems' relations to Franco's mass graves, how my poems could be said meaningfully to bear on the systematic and deliberate destruction of a people or a planet," Adam muses while on a cigarette break from a pretentious poetry reading. "I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen … but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it.

"And yet, when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I'd participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realised that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills."


Jenny Turner

The GuardianTramp

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