The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for being a fraud

 

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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Being a fraud

Cure: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

One day we're right there with Holden Caulfield, bewailing the inauthenticity in the world. The next, we've crossed to the ranks of the phonies: all smiles and charm while secretly gritting our teeth; or nodding wisely about something we know nothing about. If you're guilty of fraudulent behaviour, keep your chicanery in check with Ben Lerner's darkly comic first novel. Not only will it show you the tangle you can get yourself in; but it will encourage you to shed the insecurity that stops you from being yourself.

Twentysomething Adam is in Madrid as the recipient of a prestigious American fellowship. His project is to write a long, research-driven poem inspired by the Spanish civil war. But, instead, he spends his time trying to conceal his lack of Spanish, the fact that his poems mostly consist of mistranslations of Lorca interspliced with "repurposed" email fragments, and the little white pills he pops to keep his incipient panic under control. When he meets a beautiful young Madrileño, Isabel, he attempts to win her sympathy by telling her that his mother has died – a deception that proves tricky to maintain as their relationship develops.

While he waits to be found out, smoking hash, drinking too much, and sleeping through the historic street protests following the 11 March terrorist attacks, he is quietly befriended by Teresa, a translator who considers his poetry worth translating. "When are you going to stop pretending that you're only pretending to be a poet?" she asks one day, which shocks us as much as Adam, so convinced have we become that everyone would share his dismissive attitude towards himself and his work, if only they knew. Teresa opens the door for us to view Adam's plight as a struggle for self-worth and sanity, and empathise. View your own insincerity through Teresa's eyes and you'll see that you, too, can shed the artifice and still be someone worth knowing.

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