I had the pleasure of reading poet Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station this past week. If you haven’t heard of this book, I’m struggling to come up with a suitable summary. Basically, it follows a fledgling poet on scholarship in Madrid during the terrorist train bombings at Atocha Station several years ago. But the bombings are only one vivid punctuation mark in a story that is far more concerned with art, philosophy, modernism, and interpretation. It’s an intensely idiosyncratic book, but if you’re a reader like me, you just might find it fascinating. Personally, I found it enthralling; I could hardly put it down.
Lerner’s protagonist is the definition of a navel-gazer. He is hyper-aware of his own perceived inadequacies as a poet, certain that everyone around him is putting on a pose of artistic-ness the way he is, and self-conscious to the point of mania. He carefully composes his facial expressions to have just the right mixture of boredom and profundity; he spouts airy aphorisms about the nature of art and metaphor that are meaningless, yet that he hopes will be lapped up as deep; and he constantly lies and deceives about his own art, mostly in the hopes of impressing various female Spanish characters. He is clearly not likable, but there is something genuine at the core of this book, something very timeless in its post-modern flailings.
That’s what I took to be at the heart of this beautifully written, intensely myopic novel: a very old question about reality and whether it can be rendered in art (the modernist perspective) or whether it is only artifice (the post-modern perspective). We can see something through this character’s mental hang-ups. As one character says with impatience, “Stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet.” The novel wants something real to be there, and continues to dig, rather than throwing up its hands in a po-mo despair. The very first scene moved me; it showed our narrator wandering through a museum in Madrid, and seeing a man moved to tears in front of a museum. The narrator is intensely skeptical of the reality of this stranger’s emotion. Surely he is putting on an act, pretending to be moved by art in this way so as to seem profound. But we can hear the doubt, the uncertainty, in the narrator’s voice. Maybe, just maybe, art can access something genuine in us.
So if you enjoy novels grappling with these issues, and don’t need a breakneck plot, I highly recommend Leaving the Atocha Station. I found it fascinating.