Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
Smart and funny, the mishaps of an expat poet in Madrid expose the artistic ego
Saturday 14 July 2012
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
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 2 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 3 Alton Towers crash: Four seriously injured and 16 guests trapped as Smiler ride carriages collide
- 4 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 5 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Black Angel: Lost Star Wars precursor to be made into crowdfunded feature film
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers