“I’m sure the people of Iraq are looking forward to your poem about Franco and his economy,” Isabel tells the main character, Adam Gordon. Since the death of the self, the author and painting, the desire for significance has led to a daily slew of preposterous claims and downright silly statements. Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is less than two hundred pages long, observes this condition of disconnectedness and hyperbolic response with a sympathetic, fresh-eyed clarity. Although Leaving the Atocha Station might come off as a first person, autobiographical novel about the author’s time in Spain, the primary motivation behind its existence is the consideration of the individual’s relationship to experience and language. Lerner’s alter ego, Adam Gordon, a young poet who is in Madrid on a prestigious literary fellowship, is “worried that [he] is incapable of having a profound experience of art and [he] had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone [he] knew.”
Gordon is a young man who believes in poetry or, at least he thinks he does, but has no idea if his belief is genuine or even valid, especially since he states on a number of occasions: “Poems aren’t about anything.”
By refusing to align himself with the any of the modernist, postmodernist, or nostalgic strategies regarding the gap between the individual and experience, Gordon is left to recognize the constant and seemingly increasing state of disconnections that currently exist between the self (or its non-existent shadow) and the other. The deep-seated solipsism of daily life, which the inherent solitude of writing either underscores or tries to ignore, is what Gordon repeatedly bumps up against:
“Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”
In addition to being the title of a disjunctive poem by John Ashbery, “Leaving the Atocha Station” refers to the central train station in Madrid, where, on March 11, 2005, a terrorist bomb went off, killing more than two hundred people, many of them immigrant workers. Gordon describes both his experience of Ashbery’s poem and the event. They mark the far limits of his time in Spain, art and the experience of history.
After walking to the Atocha Station shortly after the bombing and witnessing the aftermath, Gordon goes back to his apartment:
“I went back to my apartment and refreshed the Times; the number of estimated dead was now around two hundred, at least a thousand injured. I considered walking back to Atocha, but instead I opened El Pais in another window and the Guardian in a third. I sat smoking and refreshing the home pages 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?”
Midway through the book, and before the bomb goes off, Gordon tries to characterize Ashbery’s project:
“The best Ashbery poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of the mirrored surface. And you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it/You miss it, it misses you/You miss each other.’”
If, as Gordon claims, he thought about the experience of reading Ashbery’s poems, “although not in these words,” the reader is left to wonder, in what words did he think them then? How and where does one overcome the disconnections that have infiltrated every part of our daily life? Is there a word for having your memories replaced by newspaper accounts? Has language, and its capacity for meaning, died along with the author and the self?
Although the main character (Adam Gordon) and the author (Ben Lerner) have lots in common – they both grew up in Topeka; have a mother who is a psychiatrist and a feminist; are poets and translators who went to school in Providence — Leaving the Atocha Station is not another conventional, autobiographical novel told in the first person. For one thing, Gordon is too unreliable and self-lacerating, too given to exaggeration and lying, too addicted to prescription pills, and often too stoned to be considered remotely trustworthy. He falsely tells a number of people, including the two women he is closest with, that his mom is dead. Not surprisingly, this lie leads to other lies; his mom isn’t dead but dying, his father is a fascist, a tyrant. Do these lies lead him closer to authentic experience or further away? Even when Gordon is being repentant, he can’t quite bring himself to tell the truth. Meanwhile, the reader has the sneaking and oddly delicious suspicion that any gesture towards repentance is just a phase, and that the narrator knows that, in an age that has declared the self to be all but dead, true repentance is as impossible to achieve as genuine self-enlightenment. One is forever out of touch with one’s self and the everyday world. This is the state of uncertainty and distance that Lerner registers in precise and often funny calibrations.
“Whenever I was with Teresa, whenever we were talking, I felt our faces engaged in a more substantial and sophisticated conversation than our voices.”
At various other points in the book, the “I” becomes “he” (“He would take my siesta then.”), or the author watches himself, as if through a telescope or microscope: “I saw myself as if from the yard, amazed.” It is in this unstable domain of constant dislocations and slippages — the postmodern world — that Lerner (or is it Gordon?) maintains a wry and knowing distance from all the familiar modes of self-disclosure synonymous with coming-of-age, autobiographical novels.
In different ways — including a beautifully realized section that consists entirely of instant message texts between Gordon and his friend, Cyrus, who is in Mexico with his girlfriend, Jane — Leaving the Atocha Station interrogates the familiar claim to sincerity that propels autobiographical narratives toward their Chrysalis Moment, where the narrator, the “I”, experiences a cataclysmic realization on the road to Damascus (or Darien), and emerges a changed being. Such writing presupposes that the “I” — both inside and outside the book — is stable, that its experiences are genuine and its feelings sincere, with the inside and outside of its existence as seamlessly connected as cable TV. If this “I” ever existed, it is one that Gordon, Lerner and this reader at least have seldom if ever, experienced.
Thankfully, while Leaving the Atocha Station is not a conventional autobiographical novel, it is also not a conventional experimental parody of the Chrysalis Moment or “realism” either. It isn’t a copy of a copy, which has also become a familiar representation of the pervasiveness of the inauthentic, the commonplace of mediated experience, and the death of the self. This is why you should read Leaving the Atocha Station. Without being escapist and retreating into a world without terrorism or inequality, and without making outlandish claims regarding significance, Leaving the Atocha Station is fresh, funny, disturbing and, perhaps best of all, a pleasure to read as it meditates on language, poetry, the internet and the unavoidable dislocations, which is to say our shared but deeply isolating experience of everyday life.