I wanted to know what she had been crying about and I managed to communicate that desire mainly by repeating the words for ‘fire’ and ‘before’. She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.
How do you write a novel about the slippery instability of language? About the multiple simultaneous meanings of everything we try to communicate? About our fumbling, clumsy attempts to assign words to our emotions and to interpret the words of others? You probably need to be a poet to try.
Leaving the Atocha Station is Ben Lerner’s first novel after three books of poetry. It’s narrated by the hapless Adam Gordon, a young American poet spending a year in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship. Ostensibly working on a ‘long, research-driven poem exploring the [Spanish Civil] war’s literary legacy’, Adam is instead wandering Madrid, self-medicating on his little white pills, his tranquilizers, hash and caffeine. Haunted by his belief in his own fraudulence, Adam tells us,
Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
As we move through the stages of Adam’s ‘project’, Lerner explores inauthenticity, whether or not it’s possible to have a profound experience of art, the texture of time as it passes, the poetry of John Ashbery, and Adam’s numbed reaction to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. It sounds serious, but it’s frequently hilarious. In fact, it’s hard to convey just how funny and moving I found this short novel and its solipsistic, neurotic, lying, but always self-aware, narrator.
Lerner brilliantly captures the strange ways in which technology has infiltrated our lives. There’s a disconcerting, moving and perfectly observed ten page instant messenger chat between Adam and his friend Cyrus. After the terrorist bombings, Adam sits in his apartment in Madrid refreshing the homepages of the New York Times, El Pais and The Guardian in his browser and watching the number of estimated fatalities increase, while reading about the helicopters he can hear above his head.
I sat smoking and refreshing the homepages and watching the numbers change. I could feel the newspaper accounts modifying or replacing my memory of what I’d seen; was there a word for that feeling? The only other feeling I registered was fatigue.
(This reminded me of sitting at my desk on the day of the London bombings in 2005. Everyone sat alone, mostly silent, trying to take in what was happening. I could see Big Ben out of the window, helicopters overhead. A colleague arrived late, his face blackened. He’d walked along a tunnel from an evacuated tube train. It took us the rest of the day, endlessly reading the news online, to realise that he’d been on the bombed train. That evening, I walked the seven miles home, crossing the bridge at Vauxhall and following the Northern Line stations south through a silenced city.)
When Rachael recommended Leaving the Atocha Station I’d never heard of Ben Lerner. Now I see reviews of his new novel, 10:04, everywhere. I haven’t read any of them yet. But I can already tell you that I’ll be reading 10:04. Maybe just when all the fuss has died down.
Rachael also pointed me to this interesting essay on how Adam fits into a tradition of flâneurs including the narrators of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Teju Cole’s Open City. I think that he also has more than a little in common with Paul Chowder, the poet narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Travelling Sprinkler. I love all these connections. I haven’t read Sebald for years, and I definitely need to go back to him. And, though I loved The Anthologist, I haven’t read Travelling Sprinkler yet. Clearly reading just leads us to more reading.