I hadn’t even seen the Alhambra

Sheila Heti

  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
    Granta, 181 pp, £14.99, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 84708 689 1

At the start of Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon, a young American in Spain for a year on a fellowship, purportedly to write ‘a long, research-driven poem’ about the Spanish Civil War’s ‘literary legacy’, goes into the Prado and heads for Rogier Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. He has been standing in front of it every morning since he arrived in Madrid, but today he finds a man in his place, facing the painting – or maybe the wall. Adam gets irritated, waits for him to leave, then suddenly the man bursts into tears.

Was he, I wondered … having a profound experience of art? I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art, and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or a painting or piece of music ‘changed their life’, especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change.

Adam trails the man, who continues to ‘lose his shit’ in front of various paintings, through the gallery. Soon the guards become part of the spectacle: Adam finds their mute dilemma about whether to remove this possible lunatic from the gallery ‘more moving than any Pietà, Deposition or Annunciation’. Perhaps the sobbing man’s transports are deliberate, ‘intended to force the institution to face its contradiction in the person of these guards’. Yet doesn’t the prestige of the museum derive precisely from the idea that art can do this to people? Adam decides the man is himself a ‘great artist’, and follows him out of the museum, leading us into ‘the preternaturally bright day’, and into a narrative in which the artifice of life exerts more of a pull on Adam than the artifice of any art.

Over the past eight years, Ben Lerner, who is 33, has published three poetry collections. The poems’ many preoccupations recur in the novel: war, women, America, American idioms, communication, emptiness, the suburbs, video games. In interviews Lerner has talked about playing video games as a child: ‘I don’t remember the plot [of the game King’s Quest] exactly, but it was this very rudimentary but absorptive world you could wander around, looking for magic rings and weapons and encountering gnomes. I liked that the world was enchanted but also how boring it was … I would often just wander between screens for hours.’ This is a pretty good description of Adam’s experience in Madrid: he mostly wanders around. He encounters gnomes (other people), attends enchanting but boring literary events. He tries to avoid María José, the director of the foundation that gave him his fellowship. He idly composes ‘translations’ and conducts variably successful romances with two Spanish women. He smokes hash, hangs out on the roof of his apartment, makes coffee, takes showers, reads the New York Times online, and finds himself caught up in debates about Spanish politics and Spanish poetry, neither of which he knows anything about. He suffers anxiety attacks, pops pills, reads John Ashbery and sits in the park, where he fails to work.

As in a video game, it’s not exactly what happens that counts: what’s important is how deeply you’re drawn into the world of the game, how transfixed you become. Adam is drawn deeply into his new world, and into his own thoughts. So are we: there’s tremendous verisimilitude in this short novel, and a pace that feels oddly familiar – like childhood summers, or stretches of unemployment, those times when one day seeps languidly into the next, coloured by the awareness that this time will eventually run out. Single sentences often elaborate an entire argument, or destroy an illusion; some sentences fall flat, brief and emotionless between longer ones that hypnotically work themselves up. The technique sometimes builds tension and sometimes deflates it:

The hardest part of quitting [smoking] would be the loss of narrative function; it would be like removing telephones or newspapers from the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age; there would be no possible link between scenes, no way to circulate information or close distance, and when I imagined quitting smoking, I imagined ‘settling down’, not because I associated quitting with a more mature self-care, but because I couldn’t imagine moving through an array of social spaces without the cigarette as bridge or exit strategy.

Soon after the scene in the museum comes the one moment in the book when Adam is genuinely moved by art. He is (significantly) not in a gallery, but at a backyard party, late at night. A guitarist is playing, and though Adam is suspicious (‘everyone seemed to be having a profound experience of art’), the musician is truly good, and soon Adam admits: ‘I began to hear the music, to hear it as addressing me.’ The song transports him all the way back to his childhood in Kansas, to being dropped off at a preschool called ‘Bright Circle Montessori, my dad gentle but insistent that I had to leave the car’. Twenty minutes later, Adam has his head on the shoulder of the pretty Teresa, whom he has just met, and he is feigning tears, having just told her that his mother is dead, a lie. He experiences a deep ‘self-disgust’, realising that when his mother actually dies, ‘whatever she suffered would be traceable in some important sense to this exact moment when I traded her life for the sympathy of an attractive stranger.’ And so mere moments after the transports of art have been acknowledged as possible, the idea that they might lead anywhere good – or bring any moral uplift or change in character – is quickly dismissed. There’s no evidence here that art, and therefore poetry, can save us.

One of the most exciting aspects of Leaving the Atocha Station is seeing a dedicated poet write a novel that addresses poetry’s limitations. Lerner reproduces a passage from an essay he wrote about his idol, Ashbery, one of whose poems gives the book its title. Lerner says that Ashbery’s best poems are written as if ‘on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you [see] only the reflection of your reading’. This ‘keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror’. This is like looking at a poem the way a misogynist looks at a woman. To claim that something’s great virtue is that it obligingly recedes from view, its disappearance finally allowing you to focus on yourself, reminds me of Orlando: ‘As long as she thinks of a man,’ Woolf writes, ‘nobody objects to a woman thinking.’ The corollary here is: as long as it leads a man to think only of himself, nobody could object to a poem. Adam’s frustration with poetry also comes out of the blue, in witty asides: ‘I had never travelled by rail, as archaic a method of conveyance … as poetry.’ His anxiety about whether anyone can have a profound experience of art extends to not believing that anyone can have a profound experience of him. It’s as though he believes himself to be a poem, an ineffective conveyor of meaning. He imagines that the women who like him like only the image they’re projecting. He asserts about his sort-of-girlfriend Isabel that ‘her experience of my body … was more her experience of her experience of her body … which meant my body was dissolved.’

But he is ‘dissolved’ much more by his own deceptions. Although he has internet access in his apartment, he replies to only some of his emails, and always in brief, claiming to be writing from an internet café in order to ‘create the impression I was offline, busy accumulating experience, while in fact I spent a good amount of time online’. At a party filled with handsome, well-dressed people, only a few moments pass before he tries to conceal his unworthiness with a well-practised formula. He opens his eyes ‘to a very specific point’ and sets his mouth in such a way that it communicated

a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings … insinuating that, after a frivolous night, I would be returning to the front lines of some struggle that would render whatever I experienced in such company null … I was a figure for the outside to this life … an ambassador from a reality more immediate and just.

Of course, it used to be common for artists to speak earnestly of themselves as ambassadors from realities ‘more immediate and just’. Here’s Paul Gauguin, on arrival in Tahiti, writing to his wife (who was in Paris with their five children): ‘I have escaped everything that is artificial and conventional. Here I enter into truth, become one with Nature.’

Adam leaves home too, but he escapes nothing. He can’t abandon the artificial because he is the artificial. Actually, all the poets in Atocha are phoneys (one ‘looked less like he was going to read poetry and more like he was going to sing flamenco or weep’). Only the non-poets live honestly, without artifice, spontaneously. The real contemporary artist is not someone who feels more, or more intensely, but someone who feels less. When Adam appears to have lost both of his romantic prospects, and doubles his meds, he feels ‘almost nothing at all’ and is finally inspired, able to ‘read and write for hours on end with what felt like total concentration, barely noticing nightfall’. Leaving the Atocha Station is partly a description of the inner territory of a new kind of American artist: cold, lazy, artificial, yet oddly honourable given the extreme honesty and thoroughness of his self-scrutiny. One half-wonders if, in the future, this model will loom as large in the minds of young artists as the Romantics and the modernists do in ours; if young poets will anxiously scramble to prove they spent all day online, when in fact they were out in the world, shamefacedly collecting experiences.

Only one genuine ‘experience’ is had in this book, and it’s had by Adam’s friend Cyrus, who’s travelling with his girlfriend in Mexico. Lerner relates the incident through a conversation over instant messenger. Cyrus and his girlfriend go swimming in a river, while a few yards away two men encourage a woman, reluctant and scared, to jump in. She does.

CYRUS: but as she kind of splashed around – she didn’t really know how to swim, it didn’t seem. I don’t know, she moved somewhat downriver where the current became pretty strong, and she was getting upset

ME: so someone helped her?

CYRUS: Things

CYRUS: things got very bad very fast. she went under water for a second, and when she resurfaced, she was a little further down and totally panicked

ME: jesus

CYRUS: She was screaming and water was

ME: jesus

Adam is most engaged when Cyrus is relating an experience you might put in a novel (watching someone die), the kind Adam, in his endless wanderings, longs to have. (Our lives are not like novels; at best, our friends’ lives are.) Even when History touches down in his life – he’s in Madrid during the 11 March train bombings at Atocha station (‘It’s history in the making,’ Teresa says) – his cast of mind remains resolutely ahistorical and undramatic: ‘I said to myself that History was being made and that I needed to be with Spaniards to experience it … [but] I knew I was only elaborating an excuse to see Teresa. I tried to justify my pettiness by meditating on the relation of the personal to the historical but my meditations did not go far.’

Although there are two love interests in the novel, Teresa and Isabel, it is far from being a love story. Adam is too preoccupied to see the women clearly, let alone love them: he thinks of them in distorted ways, and always in relation to himself. Mostly they are tempting him in their unconscious poses, or giving him what he wants, or withholding it. This makes it difficult for us to connect to them (just as he doesn’t), or to understand their motivation (he doesn’t), or really to tell them apart (he barely can; he longs for one when he is with the other; he thinks he prefers Teresa; no, he prefers Isabel; no, he prefers Teresa). In the end, it doesn’t really matter which he chooses. They function as talismans, to ward off the spectre of (masculine) inferiority. Adam’s true love affair is with himself.

It’s hard not to take Adam’s life as a version of Lerner’s: both are young poets raised in Topeka, Kansas; both spent time in New York among ‘the dim kids of the stars’; both spent a year in Madrid on a poetry fellowship (Adam’s unnamed; Lerner’s a Fulbright). If you were to see, at a fancy-dress party, a man dressed up in the clothes he wears every day, you would not know whether he was dressing up as himself, or not dressing up at all. That’s part of the frisson of this book. But there’s a deeper thrill. You start to register tiny communiqués between the Adam who is living the book, the Adam who is writing it and the Adam who is reading what he has written: ‘These periods of rain or periods between rains in which I was smoking and reading Tolstoy would be, I knew, impossible to narrate.’ Elsewhere: ‘Either way, I promised myself, I would never write a novel.’ The book often seems less like a novel, a public performance, than an inward-looking text to which we have been given access, something like a diary, or notes towards a future work.

Throughout, Adam marks time by telling us how far along he is in his ‘project’ (‘this anxiety was characteristic of my project’s fourth phase’), but it’s never stated what the project is – it’s obviously not the poem about the Spanish Civil War, which Adam doesn’t even think about. It seems to be something more than just an artwork, and more diffuse, something vital at which he might fail. It also seems to be something of which he is the true audience, and most ruthless judge.

Late in the novel, Adam goes with Teresa to Barcelona. On leaving the hotel to fetch their morning coffee, he promptly gets lost, and spends all day wandering around the city in a panic. He ducks into a video-game arcade, hunkers down in a plastic, car-shaped pod, and launches into a pained self-critique:

I wasn’t capable of fetching coffee in this country, let alone understanding its civil war. I hadn’t even seen the Alhambra. I was a violent, bipolar, compulsive liar. I was a real American. I was never going to flatten space or shatter it … I was a pothead, maybe an alcoholic. When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.

It’s hardly rock-bottom, though. He is still able to tell himself a romantic story about himself. (Yes, he was sleeping at the Ritz, but it was only for a night.) His real tumble to earth comes days later in Madrid, when Teresa turns on him for being convinced his appearance on a panel of Spanish poets will reveal him to be a fraud: ‘Adam, you are a wonderful poet, a serious poet … When are you going to stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet?’ He wonders: ‘Was I in fact a conversationally fluent Spanish speaker and a real poet, whatever that meant?’ The organisers want the input of a young American writer abroad, ‘and wasn’t that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent.’

We realise, as Adam does, that it’s true. He’s no impostor. His anxiety and poses have just been a way of elaborating and extending himself, a drug more potent than his pot or his pills. Adam is not a poem. He’s a person. The American ideal of freedom and self-invention has its limits; he’s a product of his context and class, and a moment later he knows that ‘I would never live away from my family and language permanently.’ He will return to America once his fellowship is done, and memory and age will have their way, turning what was complicated and complex into something ordered, understood and tame. His year in Spain will become simply ‘a last or nearly last hurrah of juvenility, but it would not, in any serious sense, form part of my life … I would compose a one or two-sentence summary of my time in Spain for those who queried me about my experience abroad … everything else would be excised.’ All his anxious self-exertions are just ways of delaying growing up. Or an even more prosaic fate: becoming a novelist.

Finally, we are treated to that most novelistic device: a happy ending. But in this case it is only subtly happy. Adam sits alone, and reading a poem aloud in Spanish, doesn’t ‘hear an American accent’. Instead of anxiously keeping secret the party for the chapbook he has written, ‘I’d even agreed to forward the announcement to my entire inbox.’ As he makes his way to the party, he discovers that ‘if I was nervous, it was only about the fact that I wasn’t nervous.’ Even the dreaded María José from the foundation ‘was surprisingly warm; we kissed each other without irony.’