Granta, £14.99

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Smart and funny, the mishaps of an expat poet in Madrid expose the artistic ego

Poets and appalling behaviour have always been the best of bedfellows. In Ben Lerner's debut novel, Adam Gordon is in Madrid on a fellowship from the US. His Spanish is poor so he relies on intuition to understand the locals andhas difficulties with other aspects of expatriate life. There is liberation in the blank slate the city offers him, but Gordon is unsettled. His profound unease extends to doubts as to whether poetry has any value at all. He knows that his role as a poet is to capture reality – or the "white machine" as he calls it - on the page, while also knowing he can only fail.

Adrift in postmodern perplexity, he finds solace in substance abuse. Gordon's days are ushered in with spliff and espresso, followed by antidepressants. There is copious drinking, too, plus tranquillisers to deal with the panic attacks brought on by all the other chemicals. But if Gordon is spectacularly self-indulgent, he's also engagingly self-deprecating and acutely self-aware – and can be laugh-out loud funny.

His neuroses dominate his relations with two madrileñas, Teresa and Isabel. Whenever he thinks he might have blundered socially with them - frequently - he luxuriates in anxiety, before erring more disastrously still. In order to explain away his doleful demeanour, he lies to each tthat his mother has died. His guilt then prompts him to confess his deceit to them.

With his foregrounding of ironised alienation, Lerner can be compared to an early Bret Easton Ellis, while possessing greater intellectual purchase. His anti-hero knows he can be accused of phoniness, but then so can absolutely everyone else: "Who wasn't squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital?" And when it comes to politics Gordon is well aware that, as an American abroad, he symbolises neo-colonialism to many of those he encounters: not least because the novel unfolds at the time of the Madrid bombings of 2004. The tragedy is the backdrop to Gordon's flitting between galleries, cafes, restaurants and his lovers' apartments.

To underline his wry exploration of the provisional nature of language, Lerner interpolates images into his text, in the manner of the great WG Sebald. His debut has been vigorously puffed on the other side of the Atlantic, raising an onerous burden of expectation. Thankfully, Leaving the Atocha Station is seductively intelligent and stylish writing, mercilessly comic in the ways it strips the creative ego bare. It will be fascinating to see where Lerner goes with his talent next.

Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum