A week ago, Ben Lerner won the Believer Book Award for his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, beating out fellow Trop-approved author Jesse Ball. Ostensibly, Leaving the Atocha Station is a curious choice. It spurns the ambition and scope of the sort of books that usually win these types of awards. It lacks, for example, the formal pyrotechnics found in Ball’s novel The Curfew or in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. It barely even qualifies as a novel, clocking in at a modest 181 pages. It occupies this strange indeterminate space between experimental roman à clef and straight-ahead literary fiction, centered on a narrator, Adam Gordon, who strives to become a great and renowned poet, on par with John Ashbery or T.S. Eliot, at the same time that he recognizes the fundamental absurdity and uselessness of the pursuit. Parts of the book, neurotically preoccupied by failure and its own aimlessness, have as much in common with Seinfeld as they do with, say, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, another literary-award winning debut novel released in the past year. Adam self-sabotages like a more precocious and intellectual George Costanza. Despite all its references to great works of art, the long meditations on Ashbery poems and a Hieronymus Bosch painting, Leaving the Atocha Station has the sort of Borscht Belt timing and absurd sense of humor found in really good sitcoms. It is the best book I’ve read all year.
Adam is the sort of character who would outwardly deplore a chance to win the Believer Book Award while craving it privately. He is a young American poet in Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship. He intends the trip to be a cadenza to the long waltz of his adolescence, a “nearly-last hurrah of juvenility that will not, in any material sense, form part of my adult life.” He spends most of the novel high on hash and anxiety medication, shiftlessly browsing the internet and failing to write a long poem about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Adam’s failure to write spawns a less specific sense of failure, so generalized that it seeps into his life. The nagging sense of his own fraudulence haunts Adam constantly: whether failing to appropriately appreciate great works of art in the Prado or vainly flirting with his two Spanish paramours, Teresa and Isabel; as he gchats with a friend in the U.S. or tries to concoct an adequately profound response to the 3/11 bombing of Atocha Station. Nor is Adam’s feeling of fraudulence specific to himself. He believes the feeling is universal, somehow metaphysical. He asks rhetorically, “That I was a fraud had never been in question—who wasn’t?” Interestingly, it is through Adam’s failure and shortcomings that Lerner and Leaving the Atocha Station succeed.
Adam’s candid voice, prone to florid speculations, strangely resembles the deadpan first-person narration in a detective novel. It has the charmingly boozy (Xanax instead of liquor) quality of a sleuth like Phillip Marlowe. Except, in place of a missing girl, Adam navigates through Madrid searching for abstractions, hunting out meaning to vague italicized concepts like “a profound experience of art” or “life’s white machine,” concepts that hold his life hostage and arrest it in a profound Hamlet-like state of inaction. These ideas are sprayed and skewed all over the book, neon signs flashing inanely, as sardonic and ostensibly hollow as Pangloss’s “all the best in the best of all possible worlds” in Candide. By the end of the book, though, Lerner manages to make Adam’s pursuit of these ideas, however hackneyed or facetious, vital and urgent. His pursuit is, ultimately, what’s at stake in the novel.
As a way of countering his unrelenting sense of fraudulence and failure, Adam strangely decides to confront the solution head on: He embraces his fraudulence and seeks out failure. He spends the book trying, in effect, to turn his life into a piece of fiction. He cultivates his unreliableness. He consumes the hash and the pills to achieve the kind of detached omniscience usually only available to fictional narrators. He fabricates flimsy, disposable lies to make his life sound more interesting to Isabel and Teresa, who coolly tolerate Adam’s antics with knowing Iberian smiles.
Lerner’s prose, like Adam’s Xanax, carefully lulls the reader into a stupor that’s also a state of heightened attention. In place of fast-moving plot, the narrative moves forward through a kind of cadence, a momentum that’s generated on the sentence level rather than through a series of life-altering events. Lerner’s deliberate prose tethers Adam’s flighty (and high) contemplations. Despite Adam’s fuzzy thoughts, each sentence displays a care for clear and precise language evident in Lerner’s three previous books of poetry. He depicts Adam’s arrested development not just narratively but syntactically, suspending him in the conditional and imperfect tenses. Throughout the novel, all of the characters remain conspicuously blank of description. The only physical description Lerner offers of Adam is that his eyebrows resemble Jack Nicholson’s. Madrid, too, seems emphatically flat and two-dimensional, like a backdrop in a video game.
Adam’s constant self-deprecation allows his anxiety to be funny and endearing instead of obnoxious. Lerner ingeniously ensures that we can peer around the edges of Adam’s solipsism and see its ridiculousness. Adam’s extended meditations on art or authenticity frequently devolve into slapstick. When, for instance, he imagines himself writing poems that will “array the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it,” Adam instead ends up copying phrases from “The Wasteland” off the internet.
Lerner’s careful sidestepping of anything resembling narrative momentum acquires a purpose and direction of its own. The book, like Adam, lingers anxiously by the edge of boredom. Lerner keeps us always feeling on the verge of disaster or catastrophe, waiting for Adam’s life to finally crumble into oblivion. But, nothing ever happens. Characters don’t develop; epiphanies come and go. The continuous lingering on boredom, the studied sidestepping of both responsibility and plot, make the book wondrously suspenseful, generate its odd sense of a narrative literally suspended. It is, in the end, what makes the novel so compelling.
Sam Freilich lives in L.A.