What would you do if, while in a foreign city halfway across the world, you saw a fellow museum patron—also an alien but perhaps from some other elsewhere than you—burst into tears before a classic painting, who was presumably (or trying to make you presume that he was) having a “profound experience of art”? You’d think, at least fleetingly, that his behavior was totally bogus, a put on, right? The Midwest native Adam Gordon doesn’t just see it as bogus, as anyone might. He makes a milestone and a life out of the possibility that sobbing museum patrons aren’t, or can’t be, part of the world as we see it. We can’t live as though there aren’t other patrons around us in the echoing halls of a museum, either because we don’t deserve to or simply haven’t yet earned the right. Maybe a profound experience of art, as Adam Gordon sees it, is knowing that it might be impossible to have one quite as we envision it, and that a truly profound moment must take us by surprise. We can’t know what form it’s going to take if it’s enough, when it comes, to move us.
What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard? ON the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears.
But even further and more to the point, would we know if we ourselves were creating art worthy of profound experience? Ben Lerner’s central character in Leaving the Atocha Station, his first novel, is the brilliant poet Adam who, through first-person narration, never lets us stop to consider the idea that he may be something special, because he feels like a fraudulent recipient of his foundation’s prestigious Madrid poetry fellowship. Are we allowed to see the merit in Adam’s poetry if he himself doesn’t? If even Adam as writer/creator believes that we’re all just appreciative of his art so that we may project our own interpretations onto it, are we allowed to believe, in turn, that we love it for what it is and not just for what we see?
And then, what if we witness horrors we can’t write about—namely, the Madrid train bombings of 2004? Will they inevitably color everything we create thereafter, or is the real ability of art to transcend the historical period surrounding it? Can Adam do anything in the “post–March 11 Madrid” without bearing the prescription of that horror in every act committed? Is the art of translation even important when we’ve all become witnesses to the same transformative event?
Leaving the Atocha Station isn’t anything I can discuss without the likes of Franzen and Ashbery beating me to the punch. What do you say, definitively, about a book whose every page suggests we might not have the ability to say anything definitive about the art we consume? And how the hell does Lerner manage any of it without sounding prescriptive, preachy, or plotless? How on earth is it instead so enveloping, funny, and far-reaching?
I can only keep asking questions to better it. Even though a good book doesn’t necessarily leave you with all the answers you seek, Lerner is one step further removed from the tradition: in asking the questions we know have no answer, we join the rich uncertainty of Adam’s own year in Spain, and the rumination leaves you to nestle in the book’s rhetorical gaps, inviting as air bubbles in bread. The entire novel acts the way a poem’s final stanza does, the moment that has the opportunity to stretch out, globalize, but can just as easily close its hand and be instead exactly what it is, because it’s required to be no more.
What Adam wrestles with is that our projections are the foundation of any experience, in matters of art or even conversing in a newly learned language. Every paragraph is an enactment of this (ranging from the profound to the hysterical):
She described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger…The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole, although here I was basically guessing; all I knew was painting was mentioned with some bitterness or regret.
Even as Adam gains fluency, his interactions become no less enigmatic, not even (or especially) with the women he loves, or thinks he loves, or might grow to love. The self-awareness of his projections becomes insidious; once the Madrid train bombings occur, it’s hard not to detect an excitement alongside his uncertainty of being an alien guest to the making of History—and even harder to think that we might not feel the exact same way if it were us on that fellowship. There’s an inevitable posturing to be found in this posthumous state: of poetry, of language, and of the ways we choose to live among our friends.
For my part, I don’t think I’ve ever written a review without having at least a vague sense of where the conclusions will be drawn, or the writer’s decisions (as I see them) fleshed out. That’s probably because I usually exit the discrete reading experience knowing, to some degree, how I feel. With Ben Lerner, leaving the book is another thing entirely, and closing Atocha Station feels, perfectly and by design, much more like closing a poetry collection than a novel. Your best and only responses to poetry are ekphrastic ones, that is, to create poetry in order to comprehend or gesture toward its predecessor. To do any less might result in something like this review, and so I almost owe our writer—our capable, quiet, funny, aware, and momentous talent—an apology. But most of all, Lerner, is the apology that your well established fame and universal respect don’t need in the least: I’m sorry for myself, for not having found you sooner.