Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben Lerner. (Original) Coffee House Press Minneapolis, 2011. Presume Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F;06/14.
I run into lots of interesting stuff reading the Paris Review, which I’ve now subscribed to. In this number (208) we get an interview with Lerner who is presented as a poet, but who has also written essays and some fiction including this novel. But in the same issue there are three poems by John Ashbery which got my attention. And it turns out Lerner is an Ashbery fan, his principal character here toting an anthology of Ashbery poetry, quoting from it, obviously directing us to consider its significance.
This book’s ideas seemed fascinating in the early going, but later I was disappointed as the story drivelled off into a much less vivid plot development. Often it’s the other way around and I have to fight my way into a book before the art gallery experience occurs. Here, it literally stared me in the face on the first couple of pages, Adam Gordon (our first-person narrator) walking into a no-doubt famous museum in Madrid, and seeing someone bursting into tears in front of a renaissance painting (Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross; I image-googled it and it is a stunner) Adam typically starts his day by staring at from exactly the same vantage point. The overly-emotional man leaves the gallery, having had (Adam speculates) a “profound experience of art”.
Adam lets us in on a few revealing facts about himself. He’s an American in Spain on a one-year subsidized scholarship from an ivy league university the application for which he falsified, addicted to a variety of soft drugs, on prescription drugs for ill-defined but probably bipolar illness, filled with disdain for his sponsors, and relentlessly introspective but so far discovering in himself nothing but fraudulence. No surprise Adam doesn’t think he’s able to have a “profound experience of art”, can’t produce anything of real value, and has developed a self-protective cynicism about his work (he’s a poet, like the author…). He describes making up poems opening books at random and using a trick of switching languages and substituting cognates, “cello” for “cielo”, for example. Spoiled, juvenile, mendacious and self-absorbed, he’s a pretty common character type, and set up for either catastrophe or a profound change.
And the first-order psychological plot is Adam’s aesthetic and creative coming-of-age. But another related theme got to me in the early going. Adam worries away at experience as it occurs in the boundary condition (ignorantly to use a math metaphor that appeals to me) between art and reality. Here he invokes Ashbery, and a loud ding went off in my mind having just had my own ambivalent experience of his three poems in the Paris Review.
A bit further along in the book, Adam explains to us (during the third phase of his “project”, which is never completely described and in fact may not exist) a fundamental problem in respect of art. Life’s most real moments “burning always with this hard, gemlike flame” are easy to represent, but that ease “enter(s) and cancel(s) the experience”, as contact with the experience gets represented or performed “for an imagined audience”. So experience is divided into what can’t be named, and what can’t be lived. At this point Adam tells us he will never write a novel…
Okay, is this an illuminating take on representation and maybe philosophy of mind, or just a bringing-to-light of sophisticated smoke and mirrors? Here I am, famous, celebrated though controversial poet John Ashbery, inviting you to regard this irrational thing (you only have to read a few lines of Ashbery poetry to understand what I mean) and just have your experience. So am I (Ashbery may ask) a consummate creative genius, or nothing but a charlatan smart enough to understand what will tickle educated fancy? Or have I created something through which you can usefully solve an important problem?
(…which would be the split between an experience and some representation of it (to an imagined audience). You can’t live it and name it, must choose and then go without the other. Once you name it it’s not life any more. So why bother naming it? Unfortunately that’s the only way we can consider it, and we need and want to consider it to understand it.)
Later, Adam is on a train and as he reads Tolstoy he feels an identity between what he’s reading and the train and says of that identity or harmony “… the structure of the sentence was precisely the time of its being furthered.” This turns out to be a quote from Ashbery, and typically of his poems I couldn’t get my mind around the syntactic meaning. Although this particular sentence doesn’t for me invoke an “art gallery experience”, I had one of sorts reading the other Ashbery poems. Reflecting on that, I wondered whether being unable simultaneously to live and name experience could be finessed if you don’t straightforwardly represent anything, making instead something abstract but beautiful and subtly self-referential so you somehow walk a tightrope balancing experience and art. That’s my reading of what Lerner is trying to say. And do.
The first part of this book got me excited because I take that kind of thing seriously. However incorrectly, it seems it might offer a chance either to answer or to avoid questions about my own experience I otherwise have trouble with.
Does Adam answer the questions he’s obviously having trouble with? Of course we wouldn’t be told, and we aren’t. The second half of the book involves his development as a poet and his similarly rocky relationships with two girls. I found the historical-novel inclusion of the terrible 2004 train-bombing at Atocha Station in Madrid, which sets the scene and some of the tone in the late stages of the story, ill-conceived and in the end distracting or at least awkward. I almost started to worry that Lerner along with his editors had had book-length issues, because there was just too much to get through in the book’s second half so that the content finally didn’t carry enough dramatic momentum.
Adam remains nearly always on a credibly-rendered emotional rollercoaster consistent with his addiction, his youth, his diagnosis, and of course his existential issues. He is darkly funny. Anyone who has tried to live in a foreign country and communicate in the language for more than a week or two will enjoy Adam’s description of his multiple contradictory understandings of things people tell him rapidly in Spanish. But his Spanish improves. So does his poetry, and Adam probably gets the girl (or one of them), the book ending for me surprisingly as if in mid-sentence.
I sense in the part of this story I like a zeitgeist I’ve seen elsewhere that echoes Damasio’s characterization of the neurologic basis of consciousness as the owner of the theatre appearing in the movie. Experience of experience (of experience). Simplistically, I’m invited to see Adam coming of age. Otherwise, he’s a complex and absorbing Kafka (who implies his own writing rescues him) and we might presume this novel gets Adam Gordon out of trouble. Or does the same for Ben Lerner.
For me it could believably accomplish all that, if only the finally overloaded second-half plot didn’t cause the story to bog down approaching its goal line, and old Adam and our author eventually to fumble their psycho-philosophic-aesthetic American football.
Very ambitious and very good, but for me it all falls just barely short of a fully convincing victory. 8.9/7.9.