Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
(Coffee House Press, August 2011)
Poetry in Prose
There’s no getting around the fact that Ben Lerner, author of the novel Leaving the Atocha Station, is primarily a poet, having published three collections before this foray into fiction. It’s not, in itself, a criticism. Beautifully written and keenly observed, the novel is more than passable as a sustained piece of fiction, coherent and effective at characterization, and with a number of compelling scenes. But in his narrator’s concern with issues of translation, his asides on the function of poetry and the aesthetics of verse quoted in prose, and his pointed choice of words and phrases like “insufflation,” “hemic,” “the law of excluded middle,” to carry his meaning, Lerner imports the economy of language and density of thought more commonly associated with poetry.
Leaving the Atocha Station documents the stay in Madrid of Adam Gordon, a young poet on a fellowship in early 2004, tracing his development as a poet over that period. Gordon’s project, as described to the fellowship committee, is to produce a long, research-driven poem on the lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War on present-day Spaniards. The actual project Gordon has undertaken is more nebulous—a mystery even to himself—and not explicitly concerned with poetry. He avoids the other fellows and foundation staff and spends most days alone, reading Tolstoy and visiting a local art museum. Eventually he makes friends with locals, and is drawn into Madrid’s arts culture.
The first phase of my research involved waking up weekday mornings in a barely furnished attic apartment . . . then putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee. When the coffee was ready I would open the skylight . . . and drink my espresso and smoke on the roof overlooking the plaza where tourists congregated with their guidebooks on the metal tables and the accordion player plied his trade. In the distance: the palace and long lines of cloud.
This early passage encapsulates Gordon’s approach to his time in Spain as well as Lerner’s direct, borderline laconic, prose style. Gordon is forever modulating his state via spliffs, tranquilizers, alcohol, and “white pills” (probably antidepressants) that he self-administers in varying doses according to whim. Lerner documents moments like these in a straightforward, clipped style, alternating them with the rambling yet incisive intellectual meditations of Gordon’s internal monologue.
Lerner’s evocation of place is one of the novel’s great strengths. His use of Madrid as a backdrop is nearly as inspired as his choice to place Gordon there in 2004. Asked by his girlfriend, Isabel, why he is studying Spain and Franco now, instead of America under George W. Bush, Gordon can only make pretentious replies even he finds unsatisfying: “‘The language of poetry is the exact opposite of the language of mass media,’ I said, meaninglessly.” When Isabel further challenges him, he greets her anger, “with silence, so as to allow her to imagine an array of responses I was in fact incapable of producing,” in his rudimentary Spanish. His clumsiness with the Spanish language parallels the inherent difficulty of his relations with other people—Isabel doesn’t remain his girlfriend for long—which in turn evokes the myriad difficulties Gordon has with poetry. Even when he stumbles into a historic moment for Spain, it serves to rouse him only briefly: as all of Madrid masses for street demonstrations, Gordon pursues Teresa, a translator whose polite disinterest in Gordon as anything more than a fellow poet and friend is maddeningly clear.
Gordon is daft, arrogant, and petulant, while also being thrillingly sharp in his internal monologue. Lerner integrates a number of engrossing mini-treatises into the text in the guise of Gordon’s stream of consciousness. Reading the work of John Ashbery on a long train ride, Gordon notes that although Ashbery’s poetry uses “language that implied narrative development—‘then,’ ‘next,’ ‘later’—such terms were merely propulsive.” It’s a credit to Lerner’s facility sustaining the world of Gordon’s heightened, drug-addled intellect that such an observation feels not only unforced but fresh and engaging.
That observation also suggests a way of reading Leaving the Atocha Station. Time passes, and occasionally one of Gordon’s actions leads to something, but mostly the framework suggesting narrative development is, indeed, “merely propulsive.” The novel is full of fascinating ideas, often displaying beautifully repeating patterns and surprising connections, but it falls short when it comes to plot. Lerner derives some narrative excitement from the historic moment mentioned above, and a bit more from Gordon’s pursuit of Teresa, and a tiny bit from his dilemma over whether to remain in Spain at the end of his fellowship. But by and large the novel’s events, such as they are, feel desultory, a string of occasions about which Gordon can pontificate. Combined with Lerner’s somewhat cool tone, the result is often a sluggish read.
But it seems fair to conclude that crafting a white-knuckle thrill ride was not Ben Lerner’s intent in taking on the novel. As much as the novel is about anything, it is about Gordon fighting his way to an uneasy peace with poetry. Where he begins the novel somewhat cynically, assembling meaningless poems by taking random phrases and then translating and mistranslating them, by novel’s end Gordon has reached a place of greater comfort in his relationship to poetry. He arrives there by way of an almost-mystical process of gaining experience and confidence. It’s the same slow artistic growth encountered by any artist, and here it is rendered carefully, in invisible increments, by Lerner. Poets, poetry readers, and especially fans of Lerner’s work will likely be excited, and rightfully so, to explore the author’s fascinating meditations in this new and fertile form.
Adam Reger is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s MFA program in fiction. He is the author of U.S. Navy Pirate Combat Skills.