Leaving the Atocha Station
Coffee House Press, August 2011
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels . . . who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles . . . Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. [. . .] The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ ”
—David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”
here is great emphasis on the new in our culture. A new product is somehow better because it is new, thanks no doubt to our corporate-consumer society. While there’s some justification for queuing up to buy the new iPhone or trading in your car every couple of years for the latest model (the Acura XLE pinches you if you nod off at the wheel!), the idea makes less sense when it comes to literature. Any number of classics, after all, are still widely read. And yet the addiction to whatever’s stacked on the New Fiction table persists (that’s why booksellers have a New Fiction table). The reading public’s memory seems to be shrinking, and this literary amnesia, coupled with the conviction that new books are inherently better than old, accounts for the remark, by Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Michael Dirda, that "More books of worth and value are going out of print than are being published today."
And much of the new—relevant, up to date, modern—seems to come with a certain amount of irony, cynicism, snark, self-consciousness, self-reference, or some cocktail of two or more of these ingredients served with a whitened smile hovering over a tall glass. Twenty-seven years ago, in his seminal essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace pointed out that “The best TV of the last five years has been about ironic self-reference like no previous species of postmodern art could ever have dreamed of” and that “self-conscious irony” is “the nexus where television and fiction converse and consort.”
Arguably, the changing of the guard in literature, from realism to irony-laden fiction and metafiction, began with Pynchon in the ’60s. The Vietnam era brought with it widespread distrust, especially of the government, and justified the cynicism that began to pervade the arts. But the disillusionment that followed the hippies’ failure to bring about world peace and universal love seems to have apotheosized it.
Even by 1993 the Age of Irony had lasted way too long. Wallace, quoting Lewis Hyde, warns that “Irony has only emergency use.” “[I]rony,” he explains, “entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. [. . .] But it’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” To be merely ironic is to delight in war but not in peace, in demolition—who doesn’t secretly fancy swinging a sledgehammer like Thor at defenseless walls?—but not creation.
The ironic attitude toward everything has led, as Wallace warned, to the refusal, in both fiction and society, to take a stance, to be serious, to in any way be—how totally uncool—sincere. Criticism abounds; solutions are passé. Everyone wants to become part of the Party of Can’t, offering unchecked mirth to anyone who is so insufferably naïve as to take an interest in a better world.
Enter Ben Lerner and his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, a hit with both critics and readers. The New Statesman, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the Boston Globe named it one of the best books of 2011 as did The Guardian (UK), the latter calling it “intensely and unusually brilliant." The New Yorker included it in its Reviewers' Favorites from 2011. Jonathan Franzen and Paul Auster enthusiastically blurbed it. It won the 2011 Believer Book Award, and it was a runner-up or finalist for four other prizes.
However cleverly contrived, Leaving the Atocha Station nonetheless strikes me as a mediocre book. The fact that so many publications named it one of the best of 2011 seems a measure of how out of touch the literary establishment has become. Alisa Sniderman, writing for The Last Magazine (Aug. 27, 2014), ends a piece about Lerner’s second novel by referencing a section of Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” in which Wallace wonders where fiction can go next. “The answer,” she proclaims, “is Ben Lerner.” And yet his first novel, which is included in her portentous judgment, has broadened and deepened the very trend that, as Wallace warned, has corroded our arts and culture. It is yet another novel that dodges sincerity as though one bite would begin the zombie apocalypse, gives us a main character who is a watcher rather than a doer (and watches himself watching more than anything else), that has mostly substituted referencing other works for creating meaning of its own. So either I inhabit an alternate reality in which Bernie Sanders is president and Atocha deserves the praise heaped on it, or the Literary Establishment needs to check its instruments.
I wouldn’t begrudge Lerner his accolades or bring up ancient history—2011, after all—except for the literary version on Gresham’s law: every mediocre (or outright bad) book published buries every good book one book deeper. I'm thinking of all the people who read Atocha Station because it was on “best” and "buzz" lists but will never get to books such as Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, or the two most germane to this essay, William Gaddis's The Recognitions and John Berger's A Painter of Our Time.
A Painter of Our Time was published in 1958, when Cold War temperatures were well below zero. Critics, reacting to the novel’s overt socialism and projecting onto it totalitarian sympathies, were all but unanimous in their condemnation. The most prominent, Stephen Spender, went so far as to compare Berger to a young Goebbels. Reeling from this concerted attack, the publisher withdrew the novel. “After one month’s life,” Berger wrote in 1988, “my first book became a dead letter.” (Quite a different reception from the one Lerner’s debut novel received.)
A Painter of Our Time recounts the travails of Janos Lavin, a Hungarian painter living in London in the early 1950s, when Hungary is undergoing social and political upheaval. The AVO, Hungary’s state police, are arresting, imprisoning, and torturing thousands. Many, like Janos’s fellow revolutionary Lazlo, are executed. Others are deported to the hinterlands of the Soviet Union. By 1956, the year the novel ends, Russian tank treads are chewing up the streets of Budapest.
A Painter is a portrait of the aging artist as an émigré. Janos is talented but unknown. A dedicated socialist whose eye is drawn south- and eastward by events in Hungary, he wonders how can he continue to paint—let alone in the safety and calm of England—while his compatriots risk or sacrifice their lives for a cause he believes in just as fervently. The book’s title echoes Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, quietly reminding us that the artist of conscience hears a call that, to answer, demands he jilt his muse.
In a few brushstrokes Berger contrasts Janos’s experiences in Hungary and Germany with his wife’s activism in England:
[Diana] had never been hungry. She had never been interrogated. She had never been smuggled over a frontier. She had sat in committee-rooms. She had shouted in Trafalgar Square. [. . .] She had never been cut-off. Whereas Janos was entirely cut-off. His voice, that had whispered a warning to a companion as he jumped off a tram before his destination to deceive a suspected pursuer, called her Rosie.
Fittingly enough (in the context of this essay), Janos’s work doesn’t sell because it’s perceived as old-fashioned. “He clearly has talent,” admits a gallery owner. “But it’s work, don’t you know, that very much belongs to the twenties and thirties.”
Adam Gordon is very different from Berger’s protagonist. A privileged young poet who gets a year of study in Madrid courtesy of a handsome fellowship, he can’t claim even Diana’s level of social involvement. Adam scores the free money by proposing an epic-length poem backgrounded by the Spanish Civil War. The only problem is he knows nothing—nor does he care to know anything—about the war, Spanish history, or even Spanish poetry. He’s a slacker who spends his days smoking hash, loitering in the Prado, ignoring his faux epic, and orchestrating complex facial expressions and subtle tones of voice in order to mislead everyone around him about what he actually thinks and feels. He has mastered what Wallace calls the “game of appearance poker.” Adam is also fond of admitting he is a “fraud” and fretting aloud that he is “pretending” to be a poet.
The book opens in the poet’s attic apartment (Chatterton anyone?). We follow him as he walks around Madrid like the Hollywood clone of an alienated, angst-ridden artist who has little social life and no real friends. Shallow, unlikeable, and pathologically self-absorbed, he’s obsessed with the impression he makes on everyone around him. His dread is so pronounced he feels “threatened by” people in a club who, possessed by the loa of music, are oblivious to how they might look to others.
It should come as no surprise that someone so taken with surfaces spends the whole novel dithering around articulating something meaningful without ever quite getting around to it. Oh he references various concepts, as when he wonders “if the incommensurability of language and experience was new,” but aside from the fact that this particular incommensurability predates the fall of Rome, he will never get more than ankle-deep into anything. Ironically, we are expected to lend credence to someone who spends most of his time evading life—avoiding actual relationships and authentic communication—when he offers vague perceptions of a deeper dimension to reality. And why does someone so obsessed with appearances care what’s underneath? Lerner never bothers to reconcile these opposing tendencies.
As part of his schtick, Adam spends a lot of time denying art can inspire a “profound experience,” that poetry is worth committing to paper or worth reading, and that anyone is genuine. Possibly, we’re not supposed to believe Adam’s bald statements about art. At one point, for example, he’s on the verge of being transported out of his narcissistic bubble by a song sung in Portuguese, so perhaps he is capable of a profound experience of art after all. He has also made a morning ritual of going to El Prado and planting himself in front of a Van der Weyden painting. Senses altered by hash and coffee, he could be after the profound experience of art he dismisses. Then again, these museum trips could represent his repeated (and unsuccessful) attempts to be moved by Van der Weyden’s masterpiece. Whatever the case, Lerner seems to have gotten so involved in constructing a labyrinth he forgot to put a minotaur in it, and the reader merely gets lost in layers of double meanings and uncertainties. Instead of leading us somewhere, Adam is like Wallace’s “well-conditioned TV viewer,” and the “most frightening prospect” he faces is leaving himself “open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability.” Adam does, however, fake vulnerability as when he claims his “brilliant and uwaveringly supportive mother” is dead. Lerner passes this off as humor.
To avoid betraying passé expressions of value, Adam likes to blurt out parodies of academicese, such as when Isabel asks why Americans are studying Franco instead of Bush. “The proper names of leaders,” Adam replies, “are distractions from concrete economic modes.” Lerner does something similar when a group of Spaniards are discussing a poetry reading in which Adam participated; the Spaniards are portrayed pretentious dupes who utter aesthetic pseudo-profundities.
While poetry may be, as Adam implies, basically useless, while it may be true that poems are never “machines that could make things happen,” the accusations have a false ring coming from him: Adam never has to make a choice between writing poetry and fighting for a cause. His life consists of rolling “spliffs,” wandering around Madrid high, and wasting his fellowship.
Berger’s protagonist, on the other hand, is tormented throughout the novel by his decision to paint rather than take part in leftist agitation until he finally abandons his passion (something Adam lacks in any form), rejoins the fight for class equality, and sacrifices what he has so long sought: critical acclaim and a modicum of commercial success. After Janos sends a single letter from Hungary, his voice goes silent: he’s either been killed or thrown into prison. Adam, in chiaroscuro-like contrast, neither risks nor sacrifices anything. His big decisions generally revolve around how to arrange his face or affect a tone of voice.
Admittedly, Atocha is a send-up—one that occasionally breaks into seriousness—so it’s hard to tell whether Adam means what he says he means when he says he really means it. (The use of photographs in the novel, spoofing W.G. Sebald, is one reminder among many the book is a send-up.) But reviewers seem to be in denial about how much of the book is cheeky fluff. James Wood, writing for The New Yorker, suggests that the cheap humor and eye-rolling jokes are an insignificant part of Atocha. He also warns us not to characterize the book “only in negative terms—by what it refuses or mocks or evades.” But why shouldn’t we when what the book primarily does is refuse, mock, and evade?
Take the drowning witnessed by two Americans traveling in Mexico and imported by Adam via email. “The real” is referenced in such a cliché way—death makes an experience more “real” (the emailer himself puts “real” in quotes)—that Adam is compelled to point out how cliché it is. To make the scene more metafictiony, one of the two American friends is writing a novel and, as her boyfriend observes, gets “some good material for her novel.” No one explains why a drowning in a Mexican river is “good material” for a novel, but Adam is envious because his friends are having a “real” experience “not just the experience of experience sponsored by” a fellowship. It doesn’t occur to him that no one forced him to spend his days spliffing, holed up with Cervantes and Tolstoy, wandering Madrid throwing face fakes at everyone.
The real evasion comes when Adam chances on a death scene of his own: “I arrived at what they call a scene of mayhem. It was cloudy. There were police and medical workers and other people everywhere, many of them weeping and/or screaming, and, as I got closer to the station, more and more confusion.” Lerner actually devotes far more verbiage to the emailed drowning than to the bombing. Nor is there any attempt to render the aftermath of the bombing in real time or to reflect any sort of urgency. Instead, he proffers “what they call scene of mayhem,” a stock phrase of calculated distance. And then there’s the use of and/or, a term more befitting a legal contract, which signals Adam’s aloofness: where would his façade of world weariness be if he made an effort to actually convey the horror of this grisly incident?
At first glance it’s easy to mistake Adam for Lerner’s alter ego: both are poets, hail from Kansas, and spent a year in Madrid on fellowship. But these are incidentals. Adam Gordon is probably closer to the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” with a dash of Otto Pivener (from Gaddis’s The Recognitions) thrown in.
“Good Old Neon,” narrated by the ghost of a yuppie named Neal, begins: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.” Neal’s subsequent self-analysis could hardly do a better job of describing Adam: “I seemed to be so totally self-centered and fraudulent that I experienced everything in terms of how it affected people’s view of me and what I needed to do to create the impression of me I wanted them to have.” Equally apt: “. . . I’d somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life’s drama’s supposed audience instead of with the drama itself, and . . . even now was watching and gauging my supposed performance’s quality and probable effects . . .”
Neal boils his problem down to his being a yuppie incapable of love (and hates how cliché that sounds). Although Adam’s stated problem is that he “was incapable of a profound experience of art” (which must be particularly rough on a supposed poet), he shows no depth of feeling for anyone. His romantic interests, Isabel and Teresa, are important to him only has they reflect a gratifying image of himself. While Neal and Adam’s fraudulence and inability to emote are the key players in their shared identity, there’s a pretty good supporting cast.
Neal throws out this line: “I was a fair-haired boy and on the fast track but wasn’t happy at all, whatever happy means . . .” Wallace uses the same “whatever” construction again five pages later. Adam turns this into a verbal tic: “. . . I didn’t have to worry about building a community, whatever that meant . . .; “. . . the swifts, if that’s what they were . . .”; ". . . what kind of grown man, if that's what he was ...”; “... reading poetry, if that is even the word ...”; “nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is ....”, etc. The examples go well into double digits.
Another odd similarity hinges on how Neal talks about the one woman he thinks he might have loved: “And I never really saw her, I couldn’t see anything except who I might be in her eyes.” Lerner gives this a twist and turns it into parody: “. . . I found myself avoiding her eyes, because when I looked at or into them, I believed I saw she saw right through me. Or I saw her see herself reflected in my eyes, saw that she knew or was coming to know, that what interest I held for her was virtual, that my appeal for her had little to do with my actual writing or speech ...”
Neal and Adam also immolate many mental calories wondering about the limitations of language, Neal in an earnest—even pained—way, Adam in a way that is mostly smokescreen, that is, in ways too general or trite to be genuine.
A parallel here or there between Neal and Adam would undoubtedly be accidental, but the key points of congruence—and their specificity—suggest something more deliberate.
Adam’s other literary antecedent is Otto Pivener, the poseur from The Recognitions, Gaddis’s 956-page tome, which abounds in counterfeiters, fakes, and frauds. Jonathan Franzen described the novel as “an ur-text of postwar fiction, both the granddaddy of difficulty and the first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn't read it while composing Catch-22 and V., managed to anticipate the spirit of both.” And yet upon its publication in 1955, The Recognitions was almost universally panned by critics, many of whom, it would later turn out, had never actually read the book, and Gaddis was driven into an exile from which he would not emerge for two decades.
One of Otto’s outstanding features is his habit of taking other people’s experiences or words and relating them as if they are his own. Time and again his fakery is ruthlessly (and hilariously) exposed. At one point Otto sojourns in a South American country where he finishes a play he’s been working on. A revolution erupts, and although he’s nowhere near the fighting, he puts an arm in a sling. Once back in New York, he angles conversations toward the insurrection, implying he was injured while escaping the violence. Adam uses the email from Latin America in the same way. He recounts to Isabel the story of the drowning in Mexico, except that he places himself and a former girlfriend in the story. He also parrots things other people say, offering them, as does Otto, as his own. The name of Otto’s alter ego—that is, the hero of his play—is Adam’s surname: Gordon. Possibly coincidence but, in a novel so awash in literary allusions, probably not.
This tracing out of Adam Gordon’s template isn’t to suggest Lerner merely lifted him from the pages of other authors—there’s plenty about Adam that’s autobiographical, among other things—nor is it intended to be accusatory; one source for a character is probably as valid as another. Rather, I think it’s useful to see how Adam differs from Neal and Otto and how differently things work out for him.
The Recognitions asks what is authentic in American society. A Painter of Our Time asks what is most worth our time—on what do we spend our human capital? The question Atocha asks is: What happens if a fraud like Adam, who isn’t much bothered by his fraudulence, isn’t exposed and things work out for him? The answer is the novel’s ending: a showy launch for a bilingual chapbook of Adam’s poetry. Pretty much everyone he’s mentioned in the novel shows up, and, having fooled his audience, Adam feels fulfilled. He is delighted to admire himself being admired (in stark contrast to Neal, whose existential emptiness drives him to suicide). The final line of Atocha, “Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends,” is slightly updated version of “And he lived happily ever after.” The novel is comedy, without the laughs.
When I mention A Painter of Our Our Time, I find most literati haven’t even heard of it, let alone read it. Nonetheless, it’s still available as a handsome Vintage paperback. The Recognitions was a Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition until Penguin quietly let it go. It was rescued from oblivion by Dalkey Archive Press, which then surrendered the rights to New York Review Books Classics. While these two landmark novels, which had difficult births and inspiring revivals, may no longer be “trending,” they have stayed in print for well over half a century—no mean feat.
So perhaps the new replacing the old is not inevitable. Perhaps they can exist, side by side. But it is too much to ask that comparable books enjoy each other’s company?
Leaving the Atocha Station, for all its hinting at the metaphysical conundrums embedded in things like language, never delivers anything substantive. Ultimately it is surface shine, like the gleam off El Estanque, a man-made lake in Madrid central to Adam’s reveries. In one meditation he frets over the shortcomings of his poetry, concluding there’s “no duende here,” an appraisal that is, perhaps, more fitting than he realizes.
In the end, whether or not someone likes a book is largely a function of taste, and mine is no better than anyone else’s. Time, I suppose, will ultimately sort out whether it’s I or the literary establishment who’s misjudged Leaving he Atocha Station. Some things, however, are not a matter of preference. It’s astonishing, for example, that although Wallace states unequivocally that dispensing with “ironic watching,” “self-consciousness,” and “hip fatigue” while getting behind “single-entendre principles” might be the smelling salts that snap fiction out of its torpor, critics like Alisa Sniderman think Lerner is just what Dr. Wallace prescribed.
In A Painter of Our Time, Janos says the skill painters “need and acquire so slowly” can be equated to a trick—the trick of accomplished technique. He contrasts this with the more common notion of a trick, which is a “copied mannerism,” a gimmick. The latter, he says, tries to get the better of the picture: “you are playing a trick on yourself, deceiving yourself, pretending you have more feeling, more skill, more experience than you actually have, and in the other case you are trying to get the better of your subject, of reality. Getting the better of the real—is to be an artist.” I cannot convince myself it’s the real Lerner has gotten the better of.
Vincent Czyz’s essays and articles have appeared in New England Review, Boston Review, AGNI, West Branch, Longreads, Poets & Writers, Rain Taxi, The Arts Fuse, Translation Review, and New Millennium Writings, among other venues. The author of a fiction collection, a novel, and a novella, he is the recipient of several fellowships and awards. His short stories have been printed in publications such as Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, Tampa Review, Tin House, and Georgetown Review.