REVIEW: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Accolades for Leaving the Atocha Station—from James Wood in the New Yorker, Lorin Stein in the New York Review of Books, Paul Auster, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Tao Lin, and probably your barber, and the person changing next to you at the gym—call it a funny book. Good god, do I disagree. Do you find it “hilarious” (Electric Literature) when a despondent poet has reason to quote, in casual conversation, a line from W. H. Auden’s eulogy for W. B. Yeats? If so you need help. Get help. Not from me. The other expectation for this slim, semi-autobiographical novel is that it will be poetic. Both the author and the narrator are young, accomplished poets. The former has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the latter tends to cite John Ashberry. But if “poetic” is blurb-speak for “lyrical” or “painterly” or “richly evocative,” then forget it. Here is a sample sentence from this poet’s novel about a poet:

The intensity of my listening did at least return strangeness to each word, force me to confront it as a sound, and then to recapture the miracle of sound opening or almost opening into sense, and I managed to suspend my disgust.

What this book is is brainy. Brainy as a motherfucker. So brainy, the only way to describe it is to fall back on swear words, like a motherfucker. It’s narrated by a young American poet who goes to Madrid on a fellowship and wastes his time smoking hashish and taking pills and fearing he’s a complete fraud. He is a fraud. But after a series of encounters with Madrid’s poets and student political activists, which he over-analyzes like a motherfucker (this must be what everyone finds so funny), Adam Gordon has an epiphany: his fraudulence as a poet and a person is not an issue, since all language and life is an act of translation—from one brain or tongue to another—and we only exist insofar as we are translated within other people’s minds. So we’re all frauds, we’re all tongue-tied gringos, and everything is everything, a star is a satellite is a plane, according to how we translate it. This sounds so cheesy when I explain it. I am not Ben Lerner. You should really be hearing this from Ben Lerner. When he writes it, as fiction, with pages on love and jealousy and art history and the Alhambra and Barcelona, it’s brilliant. Cold and brainy and almost selfishly introspective, but brilliant.

If the king geeks of the literary world are eager to fellate this novel—gosh, sorry for all the profanity; the book is so articulate that I feel crass by comparison—it’s because Leaving the Atocha Station flatters the image of the writer as a troubled, soulful, exceptional intellectual. Which is maybe a bit self-serving. But do you remember that scene in The Matrix where Neo sees, for the first time, that his existence is just a waterfall of numbers and codes cascading all around him, and he can manipulate the code at will? Leaving the Atocha Station left me with a similar feeling about the limitlessness of language and thought. So don’t worry, there are infinite ways to end this review that don’t involve another dick joke.

– Brian Hurley

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