Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ben Lerner: Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner definitely looks like someone with whom a talented reader--hell, any serious reader--would enjoy having a beer.  Or a spliff.  I admit I had to look this word up when I first encountered it in Lerner's fine first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station.  The hero of LAS, Adam Gordon, is fond of pot, lying, women who dislike him, poetry, and, mostly, himself. I did a double-take at Adam Gordon--at first I was looking for a palindrome, 'no drug ma' maybe--but then I got the joke, which I think is Adam's All-American credentials, his heartland upbringing, his education at Brown, his vague links to the New York literary scene--Lerner's strange narrator is designed to be a sort of Everyman and a nobody at the same time.  I thought of the poet Bolano (that's an invisible tilda over the 'n') pre-Savage Detectives, working at odd jobs and writing furiously, or of poets and writers I've known whose apparent blandness mask a fabulist's heart.  And Adam is a fabulist.  The two strongest riffs in the novel are that Adam is incapable of telling the truth and that Adam isn't ever sure, when he is speaking (in Spanish), that he is saying what he wishes to say.  I suspect Lerner has read Wittgenstein and recognizes the way the language game is faught with ambiguities that shift the ground of meaning from under us. Lerner is very smart in the way he uses these two ideas to create a kind of anti-Jamesian American--a not-so-innocent abroad.  At a poetry reading, Gordon hears his own poetry, translated into Spanish by a friend:
At first I heard only so many Spanish words, but nothing I could recognize as my own; after all, there was nothing particularly original about my original poems, comprised as they were of mistranslations intermixed with repurposed fragments from deleted e-mails. But as the poem went on I slowly began to recognize something like my voice, if that's the word, a recognition made all the more strange in that I'd never recognized my voice before.  Something in the arrangement of the lines, not the words themselves or what they denoted, indicated a ghostly presence behind the Spanish, and that presence was my own, or maybe it was my absence; it was like walking into a room where I was sure I'd never been, but seeing in the furniture or roaches in the ashtray or the coffee cup on the window ledge beside the shower signs that I had only recently left.
This passage, and the larger scene of which it is a part, clarify the attractions of this book: generally when we are confronted with a story about an 'undeveloped' character we can count on two things: that the character will be in some sense admirable or an embodiment of qualities whose revelation is uplifting for the reader--this formula is relentlessly deployed by bestselling authors; the other certainty is that Adam Gordon will come into possession of some insight that will 'resolve' the ambiguities of this short novel--ambiguities of language, motivation, ethical principles, aesthetic viewpoints, you name it.
Well, not here.
Adam Gordon remains a laconic, mendacious, rather unctuous fellow, a phony who appears brilliant because he knows when to keep his mouth shut, who seems worthy of affection because he shrouds himself in myth, brilliant because, like many an American go-getter, he is consummately disingenuous.  In a brilliant scene at the end of the novel, Lerner puts Gordon on stage with a group of academics and experts to comment on 'literature now.'  In a marvelous deployment of dry wit (I did not, I have to say, find LAS 'funny' or 'very funny' as two of my favorite critics [Lorin Stein and James Wood] did; however, de gustibus applies especially to wit),  Lerner has Gordon memorize a few banalities in Spanish that he can deploy as needed.  Of course, in such a setting, banalities are just what is needed, and Gordon comes off not as facile, but gnomic and very smart.  Lerner nails this sort of faux-cultural circus perfectly.
Lerner writes prose the way poets write prose: "I reread Levin's most soul-wrenching scenes without the slightest affective fluctuation'" Gordon's "reading" of Tolstoy is a kind of shtick in LAS: one struggles to imagine what this fellow on a fellowship could find in the moralistic prose of the good Count, quintessential realist and enemy of irony.  Gordon, for his part, is irony, from his posing as a poet, to his unaccountable yearning for two women who appear alternately to despise and desire him, to his impetuous self-creations (expensive meals and gifts used to deflect moments of personal crisis that pass like the effects of his white pills and, yes, his spliffs.)
So: you take some tobacco out of a cigarette and put in some pot.  And my thought was along the lines of why ruin either a good cigarette or good joint? 
Leaving the Atocha Station is a wonderful novel, beautifully written and dead on in its evocation of American phoniness.  I'd ignore the cover blurbs--which are laudatory and universally, in my opinion, wrong about the book's many qualities.

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