Reviewed in the United States on June 27, 2014
Leaving the Atocha Station is a plotless (and nearly pointless) novel. The fact that half a dozen newspapers named it one of the best of 2011 is probably an indication of how completely out of touch the literary establishment has become. Books like this remind me of something Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michael Dirda (Book World, Washington Post) recently said: "More books of worth and value are going out of print than are being published today."
Mostly, the book seems to be about a fraud (who thinks he is less fraudulent for repeating the confession that he is a fraud) and his intricate machinations to deceive the people around him in every respect--and yet we are supposed to sympathize with him. The book is so disingenuous, it's pretty much a poster child for something David Foster Wallace warned was taking over our arts and our culture--a general refusal to be sincere in any way ... but rather always to be ironical, cynical, snarky. The main character, a "poet" (just like the author) who is from Kansas (just like the author) and is on fellowship in Spain (as the author once was), strikes any number of cynical poses, but Lerner has nothing to add to literature, writing, or even your day. The book opens in the poet's attic apartment in Spain, which seems just a bit cliché. The narrator spends the opening of the book walking around like the cliché alienated, angst-ridden artist with no friends and no social life only to introduce us to his beautiful girlfriend on page 45 or so. I suppose this is to show us the fraud is such a fraud even he doesn't know what a fraud he is, but it just looks contrived.
The narrator isn't just unlikeable, he's shallow, self-absorbed, and obsessed with how he looks to others--but he writes good poetry of course ... of course the whole time denying that he writes good poetry. If Lerner spent 1/10 the energy on saying something meaningful that he puts into the narrator's complex and meticulously orchestrated facial expressions and tones of voice, this would be a noticeably better book.
The writing is often "meta-writing" ... writing that is so self-conscious it is about itself as much as anything else. Here's one example (there are many): "...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, and while she was happy to let me believe she believed in my profundity, on some level she was aware that she was merely encountering herself."
Lerner also tends to hide behind an above-it-all, "whatever that is" construction: page 17, "grown man, if that's what he was ..." Page 20 ... "reading poetry, if that is even the word ..." Page 21 "dancing, if that's even the word..." Page 22 "so the guidebook said ..." Page 25 "plane trees, if that's what those were ..." Page 49 "more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is ..." I'm sure there are dozens more. It's tiresome and hardly "articulate," which is the word we keep getting from critics.
I can't help but think that, as Dirda implies, brilliant novels, such as Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, will go unread by many of the same people reading this one since Atocha is "new," and new must be better. While those two novels are mind-blowing almost from the opening pages, I didn't read anything in Atocha that contributed to my understanding of anything--art, life abroad (I spent 10 years out of the country), culture, politics--nothing. Nor have I read the kind of writing that I find in books by authors such as Rilke, Cortazar, William Gass, Jayne Anne Phillips, William Gaddis, Paul West, Guy Davenport, Lance Olsen, Paul Lafarge, Fernando Pessoa, and Toni Morrison, whose sentences sometimes close in on out-of-body experiences. There wasn't a single sentence I marked down as worth coming back to although most of the sentences are competent enough. Too many, though, are just something between glib and pretentious.
The "humor" is obvious; it's like a punch you see coming so far ahead of its likely time to impact you barely have to react to sidestep it. The whole book may be something of a joke, but there are simply too many serious issues (about which he says absolutely nothing) involved--depression, fascism and the Spanish Civil War, and the relationship between poetry and history among them.
Leaving the Atocha Station is a Teflon-armored refusal to take a position or even imply a stance on anything (other than sentimental poetry; you could hardly find a lighter straw man). Nor is there any of the much-ballyhooed "sadness" to be found in this book; the main character is supposedly suffering from depression, but you only need to read a passage out of Styron's Darkness Visible or from David Foster Wallace to know this is another disingenuous aspect of the novel and mainly an excuse for the narrator's pill-popping. Possibly, Lerner is trying to call attention to the pretentiousness surrounding poetry and the arts, but using a pretentious character to do it isn't very effective. It's a bit ironic that this is a book which lowers the bar for literature rather than raising it, that it does not converse with earlier such novels (allusions or oblique references do not constitute conversation). Nor does it build on what they have done; it defaces it.
If you are interested in books more or less of this ilk--about artists/poets/art/poetry--that are far, far better, here are some possibilities: the aforementioned Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rilke) and Hopscotch (Cortazar), John Berger's beautifully written and even more gorgeously observed A Painter of Our Time, The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests (Paul West), The Recognitions (William Gaddis), The Book of Disquiet (Fernando Pessoa), The Alexandria Quartet (Durrell), Henry Miller's trilogy beginning with Sexus, To the Lighthouse (the artist--a painter--is not as central a character as the artists/writers in the other books I've mentioned, but it's a brilliant novel), One-Way Street by Walter Benjamin (not a novel but beautifully written and thought-provoking, and Lerner alludes to/borrows from Benjamin), Desolation Angels (Kerouac), Journals (Allen Ginsberg, Early 50s, Early 60s ... again, not a novel), Passes Through (Rob Stephenson).