Shucks Mahoney’s #CBR5 Review #6: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

atochaThere are maybe three people in the world whose book recommendations I take serious notice of, and two of them raved about Lerner’s debut. This is the book to be flung, gauntlet-style, down whenever you encounter the lazy assertion that the novel is dead or irrelevant. Unlike many books from the same school (Lerner is a young American poet who has done the rounds of tiny lit mags and has a MFA and swanky academic honours, etc) it doesn’t pain you with first-novel-creative-writing-course cliches. It does take on these cliches, head first and with daring and impressive intellect. I feel like I have to read it again, to get it to unravel more. The first section I re-read three times, savouring the language, humour, ideas, and that familiar strangeness of seeing an experience you know described perfectly, by a fictional person in an alien place.

It’s an account of a struggling poet’s time in Madrid. He’s landed a cushy fellowship which enables him to spend quite a lot of time in activities not related to his stated pisstake of a poetry project. It’s about a lot of things – James Wood took it to be about communication and matters of translation, Geoff Dyer as a ‘philosophical manifesto’ – and I’ll nod along with those calls. There’s a lot to work through, and sigh and laugh over along with it.

Adam, the lead character and narrator of dubious integrity, is pitiful and hilarious, awkward but on the right side of bearable (the dazzling language is neatly tucked in to a pragmatic, make-every-line-count approach). A lot of it felt eerily close to me, having spent time living in a foreign country and stumbling over local mores, and also having been a navel-gazing twentysomething who has been plenty unbearable at times. But he doesn’t indulge in self-pitying artist shtick, instead eviscerating it.  The writing glimmers with spots of the kind of genius that Bellow harnessed. I loved it and forsee myself boring people left right and centre about Lerner for the rest of the winter.

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