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Archive for April, 2015

Atocha

What does it mean when you don’t like something that everyone else likes?

The book in question is Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, a 2011 novel from Coffeehouse Press.  I was given this as a Christmas present (which I very much appreciate, gift-giver, if you read this), and I read it mostly on the train on my way to and from work during the worst winter of my time in Boston.

It’s hard for a literary novel to be better-reviewed than this one.  The back cover is a list of blurbs from a murderer’s row of luminaries (Jonathan Franzen) and reviewers from all the places that you would really like to give your book the seal of approval (the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, NPR).  The favorable pull-quotes are so numerous that they spill over onto the first five full pages of the interior.  (The title is borrowed from a John Ashbery poem, and Ashbery himself gives it the thumbs-up.) Leaving the Atocha Station won the Believer Award in 2011.  In short, everyone of any significance liked it or loved it.  Which is all very strange, because it is (or I found it to be) flawed on a number of levels.

Adam Gordon is a young poet who has snagged a prestigious fellowship for a year in Madrid, which he spends avoiding the other fellows in the program, smoking hash, visiting museums, and generally not working on the large poetry project that he is supposedly in Spain to complete.  During the year, he has two lovely Spanish girlfriends, the second of which appreciates his poetry enough to translate it in to Spanish (she is a translator) and arrange for it to be published and read.

So, what flaws?  Lerner seems dedicated to defeating any sort of character arc for Adam.  Forget learning or changing; Adam barely participates.  He spends most of his energy obsessing about what the people around him must be thinking about him, assuming that they don’t take him seriously either as a person or a poet, which in turn causes him to act childish or irrational.  The book’s central event, the terrorist bombing of the Atocha train station, not far from Adam’s apartment in Madrid, mostly causes him to fret that the girl he likes isn’t paying attention to him.

It could be interesting, or even funny, for a central character to be absurdly self-absorbed, but Lerner seems complicit in protecting Adam from any kind of disruption of his inner funk. He behaves badly with no consequence.  Adam lies repeatedly about his mother being gravely ill or having died in order to generate sympathy or to excuse some social awkwardness; when this is discovered, the people around him seem to have no reaction.  When his first Spanish girlfriend breaks up with him, he takes her on an absurdly expensive date using his parents’ credit card — supposedly a grave offense but we never hear a word about it again.  He abandons one girlfriend in a strange city (admittedly not his fault, since he gets lost) and abruptly changes plans on another, again on an out-of-town trip, but neither appear to hold it against him.  This non-reaction is a puzzle, a blank that the reader wants to fill with something.  What do these people think about him?

Answer: they think he’s awesome.  It’s easy to believe that Adam is a thinly-veiled avatar of Lerner, a poet who had a fellowship in Spain — and at that level, the book feels like an exercise in self-aggrandizement.  The worse Adam’s behavior, the more esteem the Spanish characters have for him as a poet.  The woman who is translating his poems into Spanish, we learn, has some reputation as a cultural figure, and so her appreciation of him really means something.   Near the end of the novel, she affirms both his work (“Adam, you are a wonderful poet, a serious poet. If I weren’t sure about that, why would I be translating you?  When will you stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet?”)  and his fluency in Spanish (“When are you going to admit that you can live in this language?”)  on the same page — I may have injured my eyes from rolling them so hard.  If only he could believe her when she tells him how great and important he is!  For a creative type living abroad, it’s pornography.

All that said, the book is extremely well-written, and certain passages are both beautiful and provocative.  A passage at the beginning regarding a man weeping in the museum was affecting, and there’s some amusing material about trying to converse in a foreign language. Adam’s internal life is well-realized, even if I wished there were more than that.  (He mostly seems like someone you wouldn’t want to hang around with.)

It may seems like I’m slagging off Lerner and the book.  I don’t mean to –it’s a decent first novel with some problems.  He would benefit from distancing himself from his main character, maybe allowing him to exist and change.  In my opinion.  He should write another one.

But the real question I have is this: What am I missing? They reception of this novel was not just positive but laudatory — words like important and brilliant and extraordinary thrown about.  It’s like a crowd laughing uproariously at a joke that you just don’t get — were just barely aware that it was a joke, in fact.

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