I liked it ... but I skimmed it. How's that for an equivocal endorsement of Ben Lerner's widely-heralded first novel Leaving the Atocha Station.
The novel consists of a succession of scenes (and states of mind) described by a young poet named Adam Gordon who's won a prestigious fellowship to live in Madrid while he does research in preparation for writing a long narrative poem about the Spanish Civil War. Gordon doesn't spend much time doing research, however. He's far more likely to be sitting in the park smoking a joint and observing the passing scene. At times his routines allow him to approach a state of euphoria but he's equally likely to descend into a dark well of anxiety and panic, which is why he's usually well-equipped with anti-anxiety medication, too.
He avoids the events sponsored by the foundation that's financing his studies. He doesn't speak Spanish well and besides, he's afraid someone might inquire into the progress of his research. For the most part he sits in the park or hovers in bars in the trendy Salamanca neighborhood of Madrid, making sure to position himself between groups so anyone who sees him there will presume he's with the other group.
Gordon's life takes on added dimension one evening when a gallery-owner named Arturo mistakes him for someone else and greets him warmly. He buys Arturo a drink, others see that he and Arturo are friends, and before long he's got some other friends, including Arturo's sister Theresa.
Other meetings and parties follow as Gordon is "taken in" by Arturo's set, though he's never quite sure what's going on due to his lack of Spanish and also to the fact that he's usually stoned and/or drunk. Yet the descriptions are vivid, rather than vague and dreary, and there's humor in Gordon's attempts to clarify what others are saying through the fog of his linguistic deficiencies. For example:
[Theresa] described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl when she thinks about it ... The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn't deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole...
Eventually he agrees to attend a reading at Arturo's gallery, where it turns out he's the featured poet. His sponsor from the foundation is present, happy to see him again and to see he's getting involved in the local "arts" community.
Gordon's descriptions of this inchoate, "floating" life are heavily laced with bemused indifference, but also enriched by a hyper-ironic awareness of how pathetic his situation and frame of mind really are.
At a certain stage in his existential "journey," as it were, both of Gordon's girl-friends dump him. He begins to suffer from insomnia, increases his dosage of prescription medications, and reaches a state of unfeeling that he finds very disturbing. But he also begins to notice an element of euphoria lurking somewhere in the background of his moribund senses. He writes:
[This] euphoria, if that’s what it was, was very far from my body, and therefore compatible with my anhedonia; it was as if I were suspended in a warm bath outside of myself. I felt something like a rush of power, the power to experience the world as though under glass, and this detachment, coupled with my reduced need or capacity for sleep, gave me a kind of vampiric energy, although I was my own prey. I could read and write for hours on end with what felt like total concentration, barely noticing nightfall, and in the early hours of the morning, I would wander around Madrid, passing Isabel’s apartment or Teresa’s gallery just to show myself I could do so without a spike in agony. I would often watch the dawn from the colonnade in El Retiro or one of the benches on El Paseo del Prado or take the Metro to a stop I didn’t know and watch the sunrise there, return home, sleep for a few hours, wake and take white pills, hash, coffee, and with an uncanny energy resume my adventures in insensitivity. I was vaguely afraid, of what I couldn’t say; maybe that I would throw myself in front of a bus without knowing what I was doing or break into Isabel’s apartment and tear apart her brother’s notebook or put a trash can through the gallery window or otherwise act out, powerless to stop myself from such a distance. But I also felt, for the first time, like a writer, as if all the real living were on the page...
The diction is almost Jamesian. Perhaps that's an association Lerner would appreciate. There's a scene early on in the book where he comes upon a man weeping in front of a painting in the Prado, and observes that he himself has never felt such emotion for any reason. It might have been lifted from James's novella The Beast in the Jungle. All the same, the self-referential turn of subject and often spaced-out tone eventually grows tiresome—hence the irresistible desire to skim.
The pace quickens whenever Gordon is with others. And two events give the last part of the book a lift. The first is the terrorist bombing at Atocha Station—an event that it's hard for anyone to be ironic or detached about, though Gordon's descriptions of how his Spanish friends react is discerning. The second is that Gordon's Spanish improves to the point where he can no longer maintain his persona as an exotic foreigner mouthing vague profundities. He eventually comes to realize that Teresa, Isabella, and Arturo hold him in a different and more critical light than he'd previously supposed.
There is enough vivid description of Madrid's nightlife in Leaving the Atocha Station to make this reader wish the author had given us even more. But his rendering of a young and acute consciousness, swimming in a sea of pills, weed, and half-comprehended Spanish, has quite a few good patches just as it is.