Adam Gordon, like plenty of young poets, is impulsive, overmedicated, brilliantly perceptive, and cripplingly self-conscious. The primary forces propelling him through life appear to be his suspicion that he is a fraud and his fear of exposure. The “alarming fervor” with which he wants to write good poetry also makes a couple appearances in Leaving the Atocha Station.
Author Ben Lerner doesn’t take sides on the issue of his protagonist Adam’s aptitude as a poet. Instead Lerner, a poet himself whose back-story mirrors Adam’s almost exactly, gives us a novel about the dissonance between real life and our expectations for it. It’s a remarkable book: Lerner’s depth of focus is intellectually compelling, and the protagonist’s tendency to alternate between self-congratulation and self-reproach is relatable, enjoyable, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.
Adam Gordon is in Madrid with a grant to research the Spanish Civil War for a forthcoming project of ambitious scope. He spends his early months in Spain cultivating a persona for himself—a serious, troubled poet with a dead mother (false) and fascist father (also false). His Spanish is terrible, and he is relieved to discover that if he makes statements à la “Blue is an idea about distance,” his intelligent Spanish friends will project their own observations onto his meaningless declarations. People naturally “extract from [his] remedial Spanish the poet’s native eloquence,” hearing in his ill-conceived contributions “a chorus of possibilities.” Terrified by the prospect of his own vacuity, he milks this for what it’s worth and agonizes over his deceptions in private.
Perhaps, Adam speculates, this ability to foreground negative capability is why he is called to poetry: because it can be dynamic without being committal, because its pointlessness can be its point, because its refusal to clarify itself invites an assumption of insight, of gravity. His skepticism about his worth as an artist, Lerner deftly suggests, derives in part from his suspicion of poetry in general. “I told myself that no matter what I did,” Adam thinks, “no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens on which readers would project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience.”
Over time Adam’s Spanish improves (here Lerner skillfully and subtly tracks Adam’s journey to Spanish fluency without any Spanish dialogue), depriving him of an alibi for his ambiguity. Convinced his exposure as a mediocre poet and unworthy lover is imminent, he spirals, upping his dosage of enigmatic pills and careening into anxious isolation. He lies compulsively, and as his evasions proliferate, his personality begins to dissolve. It’s spring of 2004 and terrorists soon kill hundreds in the Madrid train bombings, an incident I wouldn’t be surprised if Lerner were the first American novelist to truly explore. Dismembered bodies are laid to rest while intact bodies take to the streets in protest and mourning. History is unfolding before Adam’s eyes, and in the wash of something so unmistakably real, “the actual” as he calls it, he feels more uncertain and insignificant and counterfeit than ever.
Lerner’s greatest gift as a writer is his ability to wax philosophical without sounding cloyingly cerebral. While Adam is drifting through Spain writing, lying, obsessing, confessing, capsizing, and smoking lots of hash, Lerner is busy implicitly inquiring into real life’s ability to live up to the vast and gorgeous possibilities language can engender in the imagination. In particular, Adam’s fixation on “the actual” and its opposite, “the virtual,” echoes Greek philosophy’s reflections on ideal forms, the way all things mimic and by their nature inevitably fall short of the pure idea of themselves. By this logic—and bear with me as I grossly oversimplify—every poem is a knockoff of the flawless abstraction of Poetry, which makes every poet a fraud. Same goes for painters, athletes, and beauty queens. Also acorns and grains of sand, at which point the notion of fraudulence as a failure to exemplify a theoretical ideal becomes moot. Or, at least, it loses its power to wound.
To strive for any type of excellence is to imitate the inimitable. The challenge, Lerner suggests, is to make peace with your own personal replica of the divine. Lerner guides his protagonist toward a reckoning with reality and leaves him not quite transformed but poised for change, prepared to come to terms with his own life, whatever it might look like. And importantly, benevolently, Lerner leaves Adam no less a poet for his brush with “the actual” than when the story began.
As understood by Adam Gordon, if “the actual” is real life then “the virtual” is art, or the limitless variations on reality that exist in the imagination. Leaving the Atocha Station doesn’t read like a book with an axe to grind, but if it makes a point I think it’s this: that life and art are sometimes at odds, the former trivializing the latter and the latter out-dazzling the former, but that either without the other is misery. It’s been argued many times before, but rarely with such humor, candor and forgiveness. The forgiveness, however implicit on Lerner’s part, is crucial, and it’s the main thing I’ll take away from this book. “It’s okay,” no one says to Adam at any point in the novel in any way whatsoever, “to be imperfect. It’s okay to need to try.” Like the rest of us, he’ll need to figure that one out on his own.