Ben Lerner’s first novel, coming on the heels of three outstanding poetry collections, is a darkly hilarious examination of just how self-conscious, miserable, and absurd one man can be. Leaving the Atocha Station tells the story of Adam, a poet on a prestigious yearlong fellowship in Madrid. It is a quintessential modernist expat novel: Adam does very little but walk from celebrated place to celebrated place, brooding, doubting himself, half-understanding what’s said to him, and being increasingly ugly to the people around him. Typically, the expat novel is the ideal petri dish for an isolated protagonist to confront him- or herself in a lonely search for authenticity (think of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano), but as Lerner knows, that quest has become cliché. Adam grumbles that “nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is,” and that the “soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire’s packaged tours.”
The bulk of the book is about Adam’s wild insecurity. He fears that he is a fraud and that his fraudulence will be detected. He believes he might have no talent, that he received the grant due to the false ways he presents himself to others. He spends a tremendous amount of time arranging his face into appropriate positions, pretending to take notes when people are watching, and reciting memorized phrases—all in the hope of seeming intelligent.
And he is intelligent. At the heart of the book is a rather deep discussion of the function of art. As Adam sees it, art enables one to experience the movement or “texture” of time. For example, a John Ashbery poem is most successful not when it makes sense, exactly, but when it references sense, when in reading you feel “the arc and feel of thinking” and therefore are able to “experience your experience.” The rhythm of the thought, not the thought itself, is the great art. In this light Adam’s obsession with self-presentation takes on a new cast: He’s representing what a man in his situation would look like, what someone like him would be like—without the ambition of being that man, but merely of referencing him.
While the book clearly belongs to the modernist tradition, it is fiercely contemporary—not only in the pulsing presence of the Internet and antidepressants, but also in Adam’s assertion that one must wade through countless layers of fraudulence if one is ever to reach anything that feels truthful. It’s his sense of irony that isolates him and keeps him foreign, particularly when other characters know how to express themselves without making a philosophical conundrum out of it. Take Cyrus, Adam’s best friend and antipode. Off on his own expat adventure in the more humble destination of Mexico, Cyrus tells Adam a gorgeous, moving story—fittingly strained through an Internet-chat filter—of how he tried and failed to save a woman from drowning. He describes giving artificial respiration to her dead body, and his voice rises up off the page like an emissary from the real world (at last a man of action!). Cyrus’s voice reminds us how claustrophobic we’ve gotten, here in Spain with Adam, who is endlessly speculating on the experience of not having an experience of art and making up ludicrous stories about his family. But as Adam becomes more despicable, Lerner’s writing becomes more beautiful, funny, and revelatory. And the more pathetic his battle, the harder he flails, as he himself laments in deadpan understatement, “I wondered again if there were something wrong with me.”
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the story collection Minor Robberies (McSweeney's) and the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt).