Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Is Adam Gordon a brilliant young poet, embracing the richness of a foreign culture and meditating on the profound experience of art? Or, is he a self-obsessed, pothead student, bumming his way around Madrid, and using pretentious phrases like “profound experience of art”? Although the answer is never fully resolved, Adam’s pseudo-intellectual posturing and laissez-faire approach to life might bring out the grumpy old man in some readers.
Adam’s fake facade attracts the attention of two young women, one of whom believes him to be a poetic wunderkind. Meanwhile, he bumbles onward, smoking dope in the park and neglecting his studies. Mid-way through the book, I’d never felt older or grumpier. But slowly, the author’s poetic skills and sandpaper-dry humour mounted a charm offensive. With the terrorist attack on the Atocha railway station, Adam’s ruminations on life take on a new significance, if not to Adam himself. By the end of the story, as Adam’s shaky grasp on contemporary literature risks exposure, there’s even some danger of a plot breaking out. But ultimately poetic ponderings overcome the narrative. When Auden observed that poetry makes nothing happen, this is the kind of nothing he might have had in mind. [James Carson]