Adam Gordon, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is in Madrid for a year on a poetry fellowship. He’s there to write a long, research-driven poem on the literary legacy of the Spanish Civil War. That’s the reason he’s memorized, at least: he doesn’t really know Spanish history, nor Spanish literature, nor—or so he insists—Spanish.
The novel is structured around the phases of Adam’s “research,” a chapter, more or less, for each. The first phase involves going to the museum each morning, high on hash, to look at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross: “hash and caffeine and sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium.” The second phase is an interlude of happiness with Isabel, one of the two women he’s involved with in Madrid. During the third phase, Adam’s research “fall[s] into two equally unrepresentable categories,” “periods of rain or periods between rain.” In the fourth phase, he is anxious about his relationship with Teresa, the other woman and the Spanish translator of his poems, and a new phase begins when he witnesses the aftermath of the train bombings of 3/11. Finally, “During the last phase of my research, fireflies were disappearing.” Along the way, Adam smokes more hash, takes pills, spends “a good amount of time online . . . looking at videos of terrible things,” goes to Granada and Barcelona, reads Lorca and Tolstoy, gets lost, sits on a panel at a literary conference, and Gchats. And he frets—he frets and frets.
For one thing, he doesn’t exactly trust poetry, “a dead medium whose former power could only be felt as a loss.” For him, or so he claims, “poem” is “understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures.” “If I was a poet,” Adam says, “I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.” Adam’s is a poetics of infinite potential and so of inevitable failure, optimistic and pessimistic both. Where he stands depends on his mood. He has many.
There is no first thought of Adam’s that doesn’t later sprout the teeth of a second and undo and devour itself, twisting into ouroboric contortions. “Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent,” he says, a typical Gordonian knot of anxiety. Anxiety propels the novel—not just the problem with poems, but also the problem with everything. The two, for Adam, are similar if not the same. The dread lives in the distance between the potential and the actual, intention and interpretation, the original and translation, here and there, Adam’s head and everything outside.
One-hundred eighty-one pages of unfettered young man fretting would be unbearable, but luckily the novel achieves the necessary magic of putting distance between the narrator and author, and the book is as funny as it is frustrating. Even while embedded in Adam’s head, we are tipped off to his absurdities. He is constantly, bumblingly lying. One elaborate web involves his mom being dead, or not dead but very sick, and his sweet-natured dad being a feminist in public but “basically a fascist” at home: “‘He is a man of right-wing politics,’ I said, meaninglessly. ‘He only respects violence.’”
More subtle than his lies are his pilferings. He quotes his own prepared lines at the literary conference, and memorizes quotations to support his points. He calls a maybe-rival for Teresa’s affection a fucker for voting conservatively, “to exacerbate the system’s contradictions,” then uses that same line later to describe what poetry can do. While being grilled by Isabel’s aunt about his poetry, he switches to English to answer with Marianne Moore: “I, too, dislike it.”
He seems to make the mistake of believing a person can benefit from behaving like a poem—and assuming others will attend to him accordingly. He composes his faces elaborately; after a little insult at a reading, he smiles, but “slightly in a way intended to communicate that my own compliment had been mere graciousness and that I in fact believed his writing constituted a new low for his or any language, his or any art.” One doubts the original is quite so rich a text. He also feels certain that with Isabel, “Our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.” This is a fine way to read, but people aren’t poems, no matter the distance between them. He has the writer’s fear of being misunderstood. Or, rather, he cultivates misunderstanding; he fears fluency—that he’ll be understood, discovered, held responsible for what he does say, and revealed to be a failure like any poem, but, alas, merely actual, not at all art.
“I had long worried I was incapable of having a profound experience of art,” Adam says at the beginning of the novel. “The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” The poet Adam admires most—John Ashbery—makes art of this distance. In a brief and brilliant disquisition, Adam says, “The best Ashbery poems…describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem,” and, “by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence.” Adam is only ever experiencing his experience—he is too much with himself. He is ever wary, never not self-monitoring. Adam abandons a protest because he—who likes to accuse people of having “an impoverished sense of the political”—couldn’t escape the awkward sound of his own chanting voice. He ends up at a bar, and watches the protest he just left on TV. “Is this living?” he asks the bartender. He corrects himself: “Is this live?”
Only one section of the book is marked by directness. Toward the middle, Adam chats online with his best friend. Cyrus is in Mexico, where he has just seen a young woman drown.
ME: and then the girlfriend jumped in
CYRUS: not at first. But now everyone kind of turned to her. We’d all become one group, somehow. And her boyfriend had changed from teasing her to encouraging her, his arms open, lovingly—it’s fine, I promise, I’ll protect you, etc. We were
ME: how bad is this going to get?
The chat is presented whole, uncluttered by Adam’s interiority. If it’s not a testament to Adam’s undivided attention and genuine concern, it’s at least a bit of narrative generosity, a chance to be caught up in a story outside of Adam’s head. The format of the conversation gives us the sense that out in the world, there’s a lot of white space. The transcript resembles nothing if not a poem, when a poem is understood as referring to a failure of language—with interruptions, fragments, haltings, elaborations, clarifications, sloppy punctuations—to live up to its potential, whatever that may be.
CYRUS: You there?
ME: i’m here
Taken out of context and inserted into prose—the way Adam finds lines of poetry most beautiful—fragments of the conversation take on a gentle metaphysical heft. Hereness is exactly Adam’s problem—and here it is solved (if fleetingly) by Gchat: everything is, inevitably, mediated, and the best we can do is to fix on a medium and try our best to find space for the genuine. In a hopeful moment later in the novel, Adam decides he should stay in Madrid, become a poet, and “buy a phone and consummate my relationship with Teresa.” The last two actions belong to the same thought: the phone will collapse the city’s distance, let them stay in touch.
The novel, of course, is its own troubled medium, and this novel knows that. After worrying about the incommensurability of language and experience, Adam promises himself he’ll never write a novel. A sly reminder: Lerner has, even if Adam won’t. And this is a novel that treats life’s lulls, its narrativelessness, as worthy of novelistic attention:
Not the little lyric miracles and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life, and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time. But this was true only for the duration of one of these seemingly durationless periods; figures and ground could be reversed, and when one was in the midst of some new intensity, kiss or concussion, one was suddenly composed exclusively of such moments, burning always with this hard, gemlike flame. But such moments were equally impossible to represent because they were ready-made literature.
It turns “the texture of et cetera itself’ into a work of art. But what’s a work of art supposed to do? Before writing the novel, Lerner published several well-received poetry collections, and in his poem “Didactic Elegy,” from the collection Angle of Yaw, Lerner gives one possible explanation:
This is the role of the artwork—to authorize hope,
but the very condition of possibility for this hope is the impossibility of its fulfillment.
The value of hope is that it has no use value.
Hope is the saddest of formalisms.
If we are left wondering, so what?, it’s at least partly because the novel resists easy extraction at every turn. “Then why write at all?” Adam is asked at the literary conference. “I don’t know,” he answers. It cannot ask or answer questions without the help of the reader. Atocha works by calling attention to this very limitation. It both describes and demonstrates the problem of so-whatness, uselessly authorizing hope.
Scattered throughout the novel are grainy black-and-white images. One is a photo of a bombed Guernica with the caption, “I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen.” Another is of the Alhambra. At one point, Isabel and Adam visit Granada, and Adam, in a huff of jealousy, tells Isabel that he has to go back to Madrid to see Teresa, that he’s already seen the Alhambra. It’s a lie: “I wondered if I would be the only American in history who visited Granada without seeing the Alhambra.” In the image credits at the back of the book, this becomes an even funnier gag at Adam’s expense. The image comes from Turrets, Towers, and Temples: The Great Buildings of the World, as Seen and Described by Famous Writers. The images undermine the novel but affirm its failures. Of course language pales before a blown-out city, can’t capture the intricacy of the Alhambra (particularly if you’re not a famous writer, and who hasn’t even seen it). The whole novel is a document of its failures, and it succeeds, wonderfully, as it fails.