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Disappointed by a well-reviewed first novel from a leading young poet
on 6 January 2012
Ben Lerner is a highly regarded young American poet. 'Leaving the Atocha Station' - the title is taken from a poem by John Ashbery, whom Lerner admires - is his first novel. Set around the time of the Madrid bombings in 2004, it recounts a few months in the life of Adam Gordon, a young American poet who has been awarded a writing scholarship in Spain. Adam is struggling: with doubts about his ability as a poet; with his relationships with women; with the Spanish language; with the question of whether to return to the States or pursue a new life in Spain; with drugs prescribed and unprescribed. The common factor is his sense of mediacy: of being in transit and yet without a defined goal, of being separated from his own experiences in a way that renders them null.
'Leaving the Atocha Station' has been highly praised by reviewers, but left me with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction. The novel of a young man's education in life is a firmly established genre, and certain types of cliché have become hard to avoid, but Lerner seems actively to court some of the worst. In particular, the reader's investment in the story is likely to turn on his or her response to the central character. Lerner is alive to Adam's selfishness and self-absorption, his casual cruelty and mythomanic propensities, and it may be that these qualities were intended to come across as essentially comic - especially as they rarely achieve the results Adam intends - but the abiding impression was of a highly privileged young man who might serve as a living exemplar of the American term 'ingrate'.
Characters that are hard to admire in life may nonetheless prove compelling in narrative. But Lerner never managed to make me care about Adam's intransitive state or his possible futures. He isn't a 'beau monstre'; merely a morally compromised person who, we are unconvincingly assured late in the book, is for all his doubts actually a good poet.
Lerner has taken on some large targets here - the nature and function of art, the mediated nature of almost all of contemporary experience, the relationship between art and politics - but seems to have little new or interesting to say about any of these things. Adam, his consciousness permanently blurred by his erratic drug intake and the interactions between his prescribed medication and the street drugs he uses habitually, loses himself in repetitive speculations about mediacy that aim at profundity but impressed me only as dryly solipsistic. It's never a good sign when a reader becomes impatient with a character in a book as short as this.
A further surprise was that Lerner evinces no particularly striking command of language here. The 'poet's novel' - long on surprising uses of words, short on plot and character - has itself become a cliché, but Lerner really offers nothing out of the way; much of the most powerful language here is in the form of quotations. Since this is a book in which very little 'happens', and which is dominated by Adam's internal monologue, some relief at the level of the word and sentence would have been welcome.
I hesitated before awarding this novel a third star, but this is a young man's writing, literate - which is increasingly unusual - and not actively bad. Readers who want to see what Ben Lerner can really do with words would do better at present to investigate his poetry.