Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ben Lerner, _Leaving the Atocha Station_

A BRILLIANT SHORT novel, perhaps of autobiographical inspiration, since Lerner himself grew up in Kansas, went to an Ivy League school, and did a Fulbright year in Spain, and the novel's narrator, Adam Gordon, grew up in Kansas, went to an Ivy League school, and has a grant to live in Spain for a year and write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War... except that Adam, a good Ashberyean, does not believe poems are "about" anything, so the idea that the book is "about" Lerner himself may be a red herring.

The novel could hardly be more convincing, though. It feels as knobbily real as anyone could wish, Ashbery notwithstanding. Lerner makes little to no effort to make Adam Gordon likeable, even in a roguish bad-boy way. He's a bit self-absorbed, not always honest, and given to pretending he understands more of what his Spanish interlocutors are saying than he really does. (Hilariously, Lerner often gives several versions of what a Spanish character just said.)

Adam's warts-and-all self-presentation does tend to win the reader over as the book proceeds, though, mainly because his engagement in the place and the people deepen. At first, he devotes almost all of his time either to writing poems by substituting words and rearranging lines in English translations of Garcia Lorca poems or to getting stoned. His first acquaintances occur in a fog of guesswork translation. Luckily, though, he gets the benefit of a doubt from some young Spanish artists and writers, who befriend him in, set up readings for him, and let him into their world. If these bright, energetic people like Adam, I found myself thinking, he must be OK.

Tension between the real and the represented heaves into view again at the end of Part 2, when Adam has an instant-messaging chat with a stateside friend who has actually witnessed a stranger's death, and then History raises the stakes in the question when Adam is in Madrid at the time of the Al-Quaeda bombing and the election that ousts Spain's pro-Bush government. Suddenly, in his po-mo, multiply-mediated way, he's in the tradition of Auden, Orwell, and the other writers who came to Spain during the crisis of the civil war. By the end of the novel, he's planning to stay in Spain. One suspects he won't...but his wanting to suggests to me that his heart has found its over-medicated, wandering way to the right place.

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