Leaving the Atocha Station is a novel by a poet about poetry. Or rather, it is a novel about translation, pretense, inspiration, neurosis and inaction. Ben Lerner is a young, award winning American poet with three full-length collections. In his novel, the protagonist Adam Gordon is an American poet who has moved to Madrid on a prestigious university fellowship, much like the Fulbright Scholarship the author himself won. He meets a group of arty, rich locals who want to adopt him as a foreign talent and indoctrinate him in their politics. Bipolar, and apparently dependent on tranquillisers and hash, Gordon spends the time he should be writing poetry worrying about the poetry he should be writing. Convinced he is a fraud and worried about being exposed, he bolsters his fraudulence by telling lies to anyone who will listen in his allegedly broken Spanish. As the novel goes on many characters remark that he is fluent, but as he bases his relationships with Spanish women on the ‘mystery’ and poignance of the linguistic barrier between them, coming clean would mean revealing the insufficiencies of his personality. He tries his best as a narrator to convince us that he is a dilettante, all the while insidiously crafting a brilliant work of prose. The book’s success lies in its subversion of what people would expect to be a ‘poet’s novel.’
The lauded poet Sean O’Brien, after writing Afterlife (2009), a novel about poets, gave an interview to The Guardian in which he said he didn’t want to write ‘a poet’s novel in the pejorative sense of something brilliantly, beautifully immobile.’ The stereotype would be that poets as prose writers are impatient with the drudgeries of form and plot, and find that the effect they produce is one of extending a static image over the expanse of a novel.
A good example of this might be Adam Foulds’s Booker nominated The Quickening Maze (2009), which tells the story of an asylum which held the poet John Clare and Septimus Tennyson: the brother of Alfred. Foulds is a poet, and, subsequently but altogether separately, a beautiful prose stylist. Even though the novel shows itself to be practical and dutifully novelistic, dealing with plot and moving lithely between characters’ consciousnesses, one gets the impression that the action is continually being suspended between viscous and perfect descriptions of autumnal light and woodland. You rarely get this from Alan Hollinghurt, to whom Foulds has been compared, even though his prose is equally thick with lyrical style.
But such is the form of Ben Lerner’s debut novel that it avoids novelistic drudgeries to some extent without becoming a ‘poet’s novel.’ And this is doubly remarkable considering that Lerner hasn’t, like O’Brien and Foulds, written a novel about poets, but about the stuff of poetry, and the poetic character. This doesn’t sound like promising ground for a fizzing, hilarious novel. Leaving the Atocha Station turns the preoccupations of the writing process inside out and into valid, attractive subjects for a work of fiction, which, most will acknowledge, is difficult to pull off or even justify.
Lerner’s title is taken from a John Ashbery poem, and the novel becomes not a homage to Ashbery but a homage to the narrator’s own short-circuited response to John Ashbery. ‘The best Ashbery poems, I thought… describe what it is like to read an Ashbery poem.’ Similarly, Gordon’s hermetically stilted responses to art and the world around him create a miraculously solid form for the book. Poetic structural devices, such as the chiasmus, create a matrix capable of supporting a novel, and the smaller ambiguities that occur line to line in a poem are subdued further and made into a formal pulse that drives Lerner’s spare, often totally unfigurative prose. Adam Gordon’s misunderstanding of Spanish becomes a way for the author to demonstrate the sidelong possibilities of his character’s consciousness, as well as explain the way his book works: ‘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.’ We are invited to follow Gordon’s example and understand this prose in chords: its vertical as well as its linear motion. This, we realise, is the way a poem asks to be read.
This novel is crafty in that its vagueness, despite itself, always communicates articulately. It is also concise. At less than two hundred pages it is a witty blast of a book. It reads like something by Geoff Dyer at his curious, frequent best: full of the contradiction of formal motion, the inertia of getting on with things, and that scholarly delight in truancy. Lerner’s self-equivocating sentences are a signature shared with Dyer, whether the latter is writing through a fictional surrogate or as himself. Adam Gordon is a neurotic, immobile thinker, anxious about how he appears on the outside world though he spends most of his time living an inner life: ‘I tried my best not to respond to most of the e-mails I received as I thought this would create the impression that I was offline… while in fact I spent a good amount of time online.’ He is conscious of ‘living’ as it were – of gathering experience to write about. And though most of the time he believes himself to be avoiding this by just thinking about it, we notice that bits of his verse included in the narrative are influenced by observations that came to us earlier in his prose, and then, vice versa, we see him recycle lines of his poetry through his mind in prose or as scripted lines in conversation.
The way the book gets away with being a book about being a poet, is that poetic inspiration isn’t portrayed as a higher calling, but as closer to the traditionally indiscreet hackwork of the novelist: what Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s most famous alter ego describes as being ‘ [a] coldhearted betrayer of the most intimate confessions… [of] women to whom you have been deeply bound by trust, by sex, by love.’ Adam asserts his being a novelist’s narrator in his honest use of lies(– he tells us he will never write a novel). We witness Adam hearing a friend’s story about a woman drowning in Mexico – a story which qualifies, for the friend in question, as ‘novelist’s experience’ – which Adam then reproduces as his own traumatic experience when trying to solicit sympathy from a girl.
Adam Gordon exists in a strange place between total self-involvement and negative capability. Where negative capability involves imagining oneself as something other, Adam Gordon chooses to dwell, whether it is a poetic exercise or form of ascetic penance, in the worst corner of himself. He becomes a flâneur of his foibles. Here is Gordon on too many tranquilisers:
Both side effects had a certain rightness of fit with my general despondency, which was not diminishing, and I found this correspondence comforting, the way one savours abysmal weather when one feels abysmal… It gave me a kind of vampiric energy, although I was my own prey.
In the way negative capability is intended to strengthen a poet’s imagination, Gordon’s self-indulgence becomes sympathetic because it displays dedication to acquiring self-knowledge – even self-omniscience. As is the case with Geoff Dyer’s voices, the etiquette of inaction – the routine of dwelling in his acknowledged vices – has brought Gordon such a heightened awareness of self that he often seems to resent his own company. And this is manna to the reader in both its novelistic richness and comic potential.
In Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, the eponymous slob sees busy people around him and wonders how they preserve their sense of self alongside their careers, ideals or ambitions. Where is there room for ‘the person?’ he asks. One feels that in Leaving the Atocha Station, because there is so little intrusion or hindrance from the career of plot, one gets a whole lot more person, as well as a whole lot more novel.