Aaron's Reviews > Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
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's review
Nov 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: most-recommendable, favorites
Recommended to Aaron by: Evan Hansen
Recommended for: The Fraudulent
Read in November, 2011

There are obvious winners in a meritocratic system - there are the chosen ones blessed with enough genetic and generational advantages to be comfortably pre-positioned over all competitors. There are real competitors who manage to figure out the Great American Alchemy of converting sweat to gold. And then there are those rudderless bastards who have no real sense of what happened, who faked compliance with parental and then social definitions of success without ever fully investing and were rewarded as though none of it was ever a pantomime, promoted or elevated above the more passionate and dedicated by a boss or superior who couldn’t draw the necessary distinction between lucky improvisation and hard work. I know a significant number of people who have very important jobs - prosecutors, senators, artists, doctors - who scurry around wondering when everyone else will catch on to how much is ad-libbed, faked or improvised and live forever flinching against the inevitable day the boss will sit them down and disclose (not without a little embarrassment) that it has become clear that a mistake was made.

So if you are fortunate enough to hold a steady passion about what you do or to feel like you really have earned most of what you’ve acquired (and not just at the “I’m so lucky because I’m a white American still living in the lattermost days of empire” level of generality), this might not be a good book for you. Not much happens, for one thing, and the protagonist isn’t much to be proud of, but he will speak directly to those of us who find ourselves frequently rewarded out of proportion with what we deserve.

Ben Lerner won the National Book Award in his early 20s and spent a year in Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship to study poetry. It spoils nothing to reveal that the bratty, overmedicated poet abroad tracks Lerner’s ostensible experiences so closely that this reads like a very thinly abstracted autobiography. The protagonist, who I can only think of as Lerner, is dedicated to a preposterous assignment - something about writing an epic poem about effect of Franco on literature - which he realizes immediately is something he cannot do. That the managers of his stipend might think this is something he could do is only the first of his confrontations with fraudulence in the face of the ridiculous. Because all of the stipulations of his work are impossible and because he cannot find in himself any passion for what he’s doing (Lerner confesses early that he has utterly failed to be moved by poetry in any language), he is left with no choice but to announce his unsuitability for his station (which would only deprive him of his hash and reimpose more mundane expectations) or fake it. Left to translate the relevant works with a level of Spanish inappropriate for a 7th grader, his method is summed up more or less as follows;

“On these days I worked on what I called translation. I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the arc of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo”, which became “Under the arc of the cello”). I then braided fragments of the prose i kept in my second notebook with the translations I had thus produced (“Under the arc of the cello/ I open the Lorca at random,” and so on).” p.16

He expands this method to the crafting of his poetry and ostensible existential product, the erstwhile scholarship meant to justify the thousands of dollars needed to continue his time in Iberia. Lerner pops pills and stays stoned at all times to keep the anxiety of fraudulence from overturning him and exposing the abyss beneath his project, but every pending agony of discovery is met with ever more applause. Presupposing that he is an important poet, his audiences imbue his incoherence with subjectively important meanings and react as though they have heard something profound. Because all of his clauses are subordinate, because all words are juxtaposed, the reader is free to extrapolate whatever significance or authorial intent they find the most meaningful. Lerner, to maintain his anonymity and continue his project, must be careful to answer only in deliberately garbled and poorly translated tautologies and takes countermeasures like deliberately sabotaging his Spanish as to allow yet further imprecision in his artistic explanations and lower the likelihood of follow-up. And it doesn’t go much further than this. Lerner is embraced ever more tightly by a connected community of Spanish artists and writers who never manage to confront him with anything beyond unqualified praise and acceptance, meets a few women who he intermittently covets but cannot transcend the limitations of his contrivance. Lerner is an awkward liar and constantly bracketed by the need to maintain the artistic vagueness which he imagines saves him from discovery and ridicule. Through it all, the accolades keep coming and coming, and the grand arc of the story does little more than trace his migration from seeming flummoxed and conflicted about why his meager, unfocused poetic efforts are so well-met to feeling fine about the same. I’m not sure if this was the sentiment intended but the Lerner of the late novel seems less a man who has learned his own measure as a charlatan who has contented himself with the rationalization that there are no artistically or socially significant differences between the real and the faked - the reader is free to be equally excited about either.

This is some cynical stuff, and there’s no real rectitude in it. Lerner never stops faking, he just feels better about it, and while there is an attempt at tidying this up with a gesture toward the idea that if you fake something long enough, you’ll get it, this seems more like a nod toward the need for closure in a novel structure than a sincere evolution within the character, and it remains the case throughout that the intent of the author doesn’t much matter - art, if it exists at all, is the co-existence of beauty with a vagueness broad enough to be appropriated in as many ways as possible.

So anyhow, read this book if you’re a big fraud and it’s only a matter of time before you’re discovered.
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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Shaun This was fantastic criticism. I want to make an ironic reference to my fleeting almost-guilt, but I'll just leave it at that.

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