Fans of Ben Lerner’s poetry will be glad to learn that the 34-year-old wunderkind has tried his hand at fiction with his seminal novel “Leaving the Atocha Station.”
Told in the searingly honest and painfully neurotic voice of Adam Gordon, a young American poet living on a writing fellowship in Spain, Lerner updates the tradition of expatriate American writers like John Ashbery and Gertrude Stein with his clear-eyed investigation of politics, art and pretension during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Fans of Lerner’s poetry will find his trademark humor and taste for irony alive in every page.
The novel begins when Adam’s daily hash-fueled trip to a local art museum is interrupted by another patron experiencing something Adam had stopped believing possible — a “profound experience of art.” As he watches the man “lose his shit” over the paintings, Adam ruminates over fraudulence and art and ultimately confesses to the shortcomings in his own experiences with art and poetry.
Adam’s indictment of his own artifice makes him a refreshingly imperfect protagonist — readers will laugh uncomfortably as he self-effacingly fumbles his way through a panel on Spanish art, seeks attention by inventing his mother’s death, and postures about his poetry in order to continue receiving his stipend, but his fixation with dishonesty gives way to a more profound conversation about the true role of art in modern society.
Although Adam mocks pretension and admits freely to his own artistic failures, Lerner ultimately affirms the value of art.
As he chronicles his involvement in Madrid’s intellectual scene, he says “I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen … but I could not … yet … 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 … 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.”
Although intellectual life might be rife with posture and contradictions, Lerner concludes that poetry and art remain relevant and important, not so much for their inherent value, but for the possibilities that they offer.
As he says, poets like John Ashbery keep “the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the poem remains beyond you.” Ultimately, the novel’s self-awareness is among its greatest strengths.
As a representation of America during the Bush years, Adam criticizes Americans abroad and questions the hypocrisy of protesting another country’s politics whilst neglecting the atrocities of one’s own nation.
Lerner situates himself within the canon of great American writers by invoking writers like Ashbery, whose poetry provided the novel’s title.
Although its narrator might mock such a title for its presumption, the deftness of this first novel leaves little doubt that Lerner’s place among America’s great writers is imminent and well-earned.