Leaving the Atocha Station

Isabel Cowley reviews Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, a book comprised of moments lost in translation

It is the autumn of 2003 and Adam Gordon – the narrator of Ben Lerner’s debut novel – is living in Madrid on a prestigious, undeserved poetry fellowship, pretending to write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War. Adam knows almost nothing about Spain’s poetry (and less about its history) and has come to Madrid to escape the inescapable shame of his own American-ness, “as if I were a writer in flight from a repressive regime, rather than one of its most fraudulent grantees”. Whilst in Madrid, Adam alternates prescribed anti-depressants with hash and espresso, reads John Ashbery and the New York Times online, and tries and fails to fall in love with two Spanish women – neither of whom take him seriously.

Traditionally the bildungsroman iss the tale of a young man reaching towards maturity, but at the beginning of Leaving The Atocha Station Adam is unravelling. In the first five pages he inadvertently smirks his way through a tale of bereavement, is punched in the face, and then tries to atone for both by saying that his mother has recently died (she hasn’t). He follows a weeping stranger around an art gallery, desperately hoping that the man is either insane or insincere because if he is indeed having “a profound experience of art”, then Adam is alone in feeling that reality is “unavailable” and art is irrelevant.

Especially when the literature in question is an epic poem on the Spanish civil war, written by a depressive from Topeka in Kansas. As one of Adam’s girlfriend’s unkindly remarks, “I’m sure the people of Iraq are looking forward to your poem about Franco and his economy.”

The question of art and its relevance finally catches up with Adam in the form of a series of emergencies, the first harrowingly communicated via instant messenger, the second – the Madrid Bombings in which 191 people died and thousands more were injured – much closer to home.

“Adam alternates prescribed anti-depressants with hash and espresso, reads John Ashbery and the New York Times online, and tries and fails to fall in love with two Spanish women – neither of whom take him seriously.”

He also ‘writes’ poetry by mistranslating sentences from the work of Spain’s most ubiquitous poet, Federico García Lorca, occasionally exchanging a word for one that sounds similar, and alternating these lines with fragments from old emails. Adam has come to suspect that his personality, like his poetry, is largely fraudulent, a collection of stolen lines, collated at random and dependent on a benevolent listener – usually female – “imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force”. It is the depths and surfaces of his own fraudulence, rather than the Spanish civil war, that Adam is, paradoxically, researching and the result is very funny; a serious, poignant, slacker-comedy comprised of moments lost in translation and Adam’s own, endless doubts about Adam.

By his own admission – “I was a violent, bipolar, compulsive liar. I was a real American” – Adam should be insufferable, but he isn’t. Rather, Adam is funny, bright, self-deprecating, often genuinely baffled by his own bad behaviour and capable of cutting serious, freewheeling, intellectual insight with bathos. He is also – whether we like it or not – a Foster Wallacian portrait of the artist in the twenty first century: mired in his own postmodernism, clinging to the faded prestige of a dying form, and using that prestige to chat up girls. Through Adam’s doubts, Leaving the Atocha Station asks a serious question about the status of American literature during a period in which America is conducting two wars and rapidly approaching an imminent financial crisis.

In the aftermath of the attack poetry starts to seem more important to Adam – or at least, slightly less redundant – and he begins both to write seriously and to engage with the world around him. The result is a powerful end to a brave, funny novel, which – in the midst of its hero’s comedy of errors – makes an impassioned, convincing case for the continued relevance of trying and failing to create art in a world which can feel like an electronic shadow of itself. Even if, like Adam, all we can do is ‘fail better’, at least we may find some beauty – and a lot of comedy – in the attempt.