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.

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