Writer and bookseller Jenni Kauppi presents musings on books new and old, under the radar and above…
Leaving the Atocha Station follows gifted American research fellow Adam Gordon in Madrid on a year-long research project, “a research-driven poem” about the “literary legacy” of the Spanish Civil War. Or so he says. Adam’s real project is at odds with this neat ambition, and he finds himself lost in a maze of existential angst – the helplessly neurotic default of an arts graduate with over-developed critical faculties and the unshakeable feeling that the artifice that he is trying to escape might just be his own.
With some autobiographical elements to the novel – author Ben Lerner and Adam are both poets who have spent time in Spain (Lerner as a Fulbright Scholar) and share Topeka, Kansas as their home towns – Lerner raises some uncomfortable questions about experience, authenticity and most interestingly, the limitations of poetry as an art form. What ensues is a hilarious j’accuse of the artifice of art and the modern middle-class quest for ‘self’ through experience.
Adam’s is a classically privileged twenty-something preoccupation: live authentically as a foreigner in Europe, have a “profound experience of art” and be effortlessly mysterious, while knowing full well, that he will one day soon return to his life in small town Kansas.
Lerner creates his anti-hero with all the detail of a method actor, meticulously illustrating Adam’s painful self-awareness and carefully choreographed interactions. He’s at pains to keep separate his two groups of friends – especially his love interest in each – to inflate each in the others’ (perceived) imaginations, and by extension, his own esteem as well. Feeling inadequately dressed among the wealthy and stylish at a party, he attempts a facial expression designed to suggest:
“a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings … The goal of this look was to make my insufficiencies appear chosen, to give my unstylish hair and clothes the force of protest; I was a figure for the outside of this life, I had known it and rejected it and now was back as an ambassador from a reality more immediate and just.”
It’s hard work being Adam Gordon.
Language becomes symbolic for the existential disconnect to those around him, as he extrapolates and fakes his way through his interactions. But it’s not a language barrier Adam is contending with – his Spanish seems proficient – but a larger existential issue around his authenticity as a poet, man, an American, and the burden of being a twenty-something foreigner with your life ahead of you. In agonising about his appearing authentic to his friends and himself, he remains, ironically, unable breach the superficial surface of either.
To manage, as with his facial expression, Adam keeps verbal communication with his trendy Spanish friends vague and vacuous, prevaricating his way through Spanish-language conversations with arty rhetoric – on some occasions, whole phrases learned and rehearsed – so as to imply some greater meaning. The comedy is that for all the excruciating effort he puts into each interaction, Adam’s Spanish friends seem to either coolly forgive, or completely disregard his affectations and he enjoys a privileged status as a poet for whom readings are arranged and poems are published. We are left to wonder if all this excruciating effort and deliberation he puts into these impressions is even necessary – if they see through his lies and don’t care, or if they notice them at all.
Leaving the Atocha Station also works as a travelogue of sorts, an antidote to the Eat Pray Love bourgeois preoccupation with finding oneself. Adam resents the tiresomeness of tourists and
“…the things one was supposed to do in Madrid: progressing from one bar to another while getting progressively fucked up, then arriving at a multistory discoteca and dancing, if that’s even the word, to horrible techno, making out for hours, then having chocolate con churros and stumbling home near dawn.”
Anecdotes, as the currency of travel and the interface of ‘experience’, are traded on heavily, if fraudulently, and in one case borrowed wholesale from a friend’s harrowing experience in Mexico. This scene – interestingly, the only time Adam seems emotionally present – told originally by the friend in the halting and disposable medium of IM, flags the Gen-Y-ness of this exchange, throwing it into sharp relief with the lost art of engaging travel writing.
Lerner takes a fiercely tragic-comic view on Adam and his superficial preoccupations. And while he’s unforgiving of Adam in his honesty, the comedy never comes over as satire. Nor is it derisive, keeping the meditation on both his anxieties and his ruminations on art, authenticity and experience entirely earnest. Lerner’s greatest achievement with Adam is that, for all his insecurity and affectation, he would be an intensely dislikable guy were we not also forced to admit to ourselves how readily we can identify with him.
Leaving the Atocha Station
Ben Learner (pic: Matt Lerner)
By Jenni Kauppi
Writer and bookseller