Monday, April 26, 2021

the last book I read

Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

Adam Gordon. He's a poet. And he doesn't know it! No, actually he totally does know it, because he's in Madrid, having wangled a poetry-related university fellowship. Literally the only downside of this is the vague but concrete expectation that he will eventually produce some actual works of poetry (his original remit was something to do with the Spanish Civil War) to fulfil the terms of the fellowship.

But in the meantime there is mooching about in bars to be done, not to mention smoking a considerable amount of hash and performatively reading Tolstoy in an attempt to look enigmatic and interesting and attract some exotic Spanish women. On top of the wine and the hash Adam also sports a pretty heavy-duty prescription tranquiliser habit (prescribed for some form of bipolar disorder), so we need to sound the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR klaxon here before we go any further.

Adam's Spanish is a bit sketchy (at the start of the book at least), but he finds a way to turn this to his advantage by feigning a sort of cool poetic inarticulacy, as if his inner thoughts are too complex, too profound to be translated into Spanish; this allows him to maintain a sort of enigmatic silence which people can interpret as they wish. Of course a sketchy understanding of what's being said to you can be a problem as well; early on in the book Adam reacts with inappropriate mirth to someone's confession of family tragedy and gets punched in the face. In order to recover from this incident he tells his friend Teresa, for reasons he cannot later recall, that his mother is dead, a lie which comes round to bite him on the arse later.

But generally it's a nice commitment-free drift through life, hooking up with attractive young Spanish women who seem prepared to take his pretensions to being a poet at face value and put up with his vagueness, lack of engagement with everyday life and general unreliableness. Reality does unavoidably intervene a few times, though, mainly at the points where Adam's life intersects with his university supervisor and some positive commitment to delivering work is required. At these points Adam's drifty vagueness gives way to blind sweaty panic at being Found Out, but he usually manages to busk through the crisis and resume his former existence. 

Reality intervenes in a major way when there is a major terrorist bombing near the main Madrid railway station (the Atocha station of the book's title) and many of his Spanish friends take to the street for acts of solidarity and protest. Adam can't really muster the energy to join in, and even when he has a pang of public spirit and gets in line to give blood, he eventually decides that the queue is too long, that he can't really be arsed and that meh, they've probably got enough blood already and moreover that he's slightly paranoid that they'll test his blood and find it fizzing with caffeine, Rioja, hash and prescription tranquilisers. 

Almost despite himself Adam negotiates a couple of reasonably successful public appearances, collaborates in the publication of a small pamphlet of his poems and has to face the unpalatable possibility that a) his pose of not really speaking Spanish properly won't wash any more as he is clearly fluent and b) his pose of fraudulently impersonating a "real" poet is just that, a pose - to paraphrase Teresa, he needs to stop pretending that he's only pretending to be a poet. The novel ends as he tries to decide whether to return to America or stay in Spain.

It goes without saying that the character of Adam is intensely slappable, with just enough self-awareness to prevent him being completely unbearable. How much of his disengagement and flattening of affect is down to his relentless tranquiliser habit, and how much is just him being an arsehole? How, amid all that, does he manage to woo intelligent and attractive Spanish women who are possessed of saintly forbearance and generally forgive him for serial acts of insensitive arseholery? Who knows? 

Leaving The Atocha Station is a shortish book written in a precise, drily humorous style and with some interesting things to say about art and artists and artists' tendency to self-analyse and second-guess their own motivations to an obsessive and counter-productive degree. Apart from the bombing, which happens at the periphery of Adam's sphere of attention, the most riveting section of action in the book is the IM conversation Adam has with his brother Cyrus wherein Cyrus relates an adventure he recently had in Mexico attempting (unsuccessfully) to rescue a young woman from drowning in a river. It is wholly typical of Adam's character that he later steals this story and passes it off as his own in an attempt to impress a woman. That a lot of the rest of it is about art, artists' motivations for creating art, people's reactions to art, people's reactions to their own reactions to art, and so on, may be off-putting to some people but I enjoyed it very much. 

Leaving The Atocha Station won the Believer Book Award in 2011 - the award is supposedly awarded to the "best written and most underappreciated" novel of the year, which makes the 2006 award going to Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem a little odd, as it won a gazillion other awards including the Pulitzer. Anyway, it is the only other winner I've read.

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