Ben Lerner’s newest book, Leaving the Atocha Station, is a brilliant novel that doubles—uncannily, uneasily—as a distorted yet revealing self-portrait. The novel’s narrator Adam Gordon, is—like Lerner—a Fulbright scholar abroad during the 2004 Madrid bombings. Also, like Lerner, Gordon hails from Topeka, has published poetry, is obsessed by theoretical questions of translation, and can expound insightfully on the interior make-up of John Ashbery’s poetry (the book’s title comes from a poem in the elder poet’s 1962 groundbreaking volume The Tennis Court Oath). In another sense, Adam Gordon is a knowing confession and critique of our—and Lerner’s—generation’s extreme dependencies on the News Media version of reality (The War on Terror or weather patterns); the pharmaceutical industry (illegal or over-the-counter); compulsive emailing and online chatting; and pathological lying (about grief, sexuality or politics).
Ben Lerner is undoubtedly one of poetry’s most versatile and intelligent young voices, a fact established by his previous works: The Lichtenburg Figures (National Book Award finalist 2004), Angle of Yaw (2006), and most recently Mean Free Path (2010). In Leaving the Atocha Station, his first work of fiction—and perhaps his most ambitious and hard-knuckled meditation to date—Lerner has reflected an imagined version of a prior self that stands in not only for an emerging literary generation, but the possibility of authenticity itself in a world as mediated as it is medicated by fiction.
Adam Fitzgerald When John Ashbery told me he was reading your novel and how good it was, I was expecting almost anything—perhaps something a tad Language-ey, or something in the vein of Three Poems. That is, a book ostensibly experimental. I was surprised. Not to say that your new novel isn’t a thought-bomb in its own (dis)quiet way, but the surface style is undisturbed, placid, a novel about poets and poetry but in no way is it “Young Poet does The Big Novel” (that sounds pornographic). Adam Gordon—soon seen by the reader as a version of someone who might resemble you, the author—is a young, post-graduate Fulbright scholar, spending time in Spain under the pretense of studying literary responses to the Spanish Civil War. He’s an Ashbery and Lorca devotee. He’s from Kansas, has published poems, has G-chats with friends who share the names of Ben Lerner’s “real life” friends. Though that can of worms wasn’t what captivated me at first—I found it sneakily provocative considering the work opens with an extended questioning of the possibility that art in our contemporary context can ever be properly “authentic.”
I found myself entranced by the elegance of your prose: its sharp, crisp syntax that can widen out to capture the self-conscious thinking of a young, self-conscious writer. It also can accommodate a kind of American elision in phrasing, a vernacular way of being, that is immediate and—for lack of a better word—“believable” given the artful, combed quality the sentences have. So when did you decide to work out some of your experience of poetics, of Spain, in the form of a “straight-faced” novel?
Ben Lerner I was surprised—as you were—to find I had written a novel with a largely undisturbed surface, or whose disturbances don’t disturb the narrative, a “real” novel, not a “poet’s novel.” That’s the sense in which I can think of it as “straight-faced”; in many other ways it’s bizarre. I had never written any sustained narrative prose before and I assumed if I tried to write a novel it would become one of the two kinds of books I think we mean by “poet’s novel”: either a lyrically charged text in which the signifier keeps overwhelming the signified or a more Ashbery-like (or de Chirico or Pasternak-like) drama of evaporating content, a kind of syntactic engine in which language dematerializes as if into narrative but the narrative itself is more of a motion than a meaning. Adam Gordon, the protagonist of my novel, prefers this second kind of prose: “I came to realize that far more important to me than any plot or conventional sense was the sheer directionality I felt while reading prose, the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine. Even in the most dramatic scenes, when Natasha is suddenly beside him or whatever, what moved me most was less the pathos of the reunion and his passing than the action of prepositions, conjunctions, etc.; the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated.” He reads—or claims to read—even the most narrative and canonical novels as “poet’s novels.”
Part of what was exciting and unnerving about writing this book was moving away from enactment—say, writing a sentence in which the dissolution of the predicate in the sweep of predication is brought about—toward something closer to description: a critical and narrative account of such phenomena and the way they spread out from the aesthetic to other domains of experience. This movement from enactment toward description was new to me because, following Olson (and many others), I think of poetry as requiring exactly the opposite, as characterized by the attempt to create structures in which content is sedimented so that the poem becomes (or ironizes) an experience prose might just describe. Of course it’s never all or nothing, and producing a first-person narrator through the action of his thinking is a kind of formal enactment, but I mean that a refusal of both poles of the “poet’s novel” was necessary in order to produce a world in which a character can experience, among other things, those poles themselves.
AF One of the local effects I observed and felt smartly carried the book throughout could be summed up by your marvelous use of the word “or,” which has a solemn grammatical function from Mallarmé to Derrida in trying to rethink ontology through an existential awareness and demonstration of lexical instability (cue apophatic poetics). Less pedantically, your speaker’s frustrated fluency in Spanish keeps him in a space where people are possibly saying this OR that, sometimes with hilarious or then again rather grave consequences. Adam misunderstands his interlocutors, they misunderstand him about mundane matters as well as heavier subjects like sexual desire, and the proper etiquette for grieving. This device of the OR (can I call it that?) impresses me because it so accurately encapsulates travelers’ panicked need for constant self-improvisation, but also because I found it telling me something how you, the writer, view the nature of communication itself.
As Harold Bloom’s always harping in regard to Shakespeare’s characters—us humans are never having the same conversation, we’re lost in the labyrinth of perpetual mishearing of one other, yet the great hope in this isolation is—how successfully? at what costs?—to recognize and realize our innermost selves. I wondered about our narrator throughout: isn’t he doing just that, overhearing his own private language, and diabolically, at times, trying to manipulate the world for intimacy, attention, sex, what have you. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, except Gordon’s criticality of everything and everyone is infectious—and his transparency as a flawed, slightly deranged, charismatic, pathetic, vain poet stems from the same ability to creatively sustain our adolescent myth that maybe we poets never want to outgrow. Maybe what makes for a solipsistic or narcissistic “adult” also allows for a continuation of poetry, that argument with self.
BL Yes, “or” is an important word in the book, especially in those scenes where Adam Gordon can’t tell if he’s following the Spanish of an interlocutor, and so, instead of simply failing to understand, understands more than one possible meaning at a time. He “understands in chords,” as he puts it. I can relate to this; even in a long conversation in Spanish, I’m often unsure if I’m responding to what the other person actually said—that I haven’t mistaken, say, “time” for “weather”—and this probably encourages me to respond with abstractions that can accommodate either possibility. And I agree with Bloom that this isn’t just characteristic of speaking a foreign language, but also typical of exchanges in your native language, as one can never be sure what meanings lurk behind the literal, and as one often finds oneself trying to respond to an array of possible implications simultaneously, intended or projected. Adam tries to exploit this indeterminacy in his own speech; he speaks willfully fragmented Spanish with Isabel, for example, because he believes she intuits from those fragments depths of intelligence he doesn’t actually possess.
The way that Adam experiences his incompetence as ambiguity or polysemy in Spanish conversation parallels in many ways his thinking about art. He is obsessed with this binary of the virtual and the actual, terminology I stole from Allen Grossman. He is interested in the gap between actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf, and finds art and poetry most beautiful when encountered in a virtual form: “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.” Hearing a Spanish sentence as X_ or _Y allows him to keep his exchanges from becoming actual, to keep them in the realm of the virtual. It’s worth noting that the virgule we use to represent a line break in prose is the same glyph we use to indicate alternatives, the “either / or.” Whenever I read Olson’s “The Kingfishers” I find myself viewing that first line (“What does not change / is the will to change”) both as a virtual line break and as indicating alternatives (choose what does not change or choose the will to change).
One strange effect of “Adam’s” investment in the virtuality of “or” is that learning Spanish, or admitting that he’s achieved a workable fluency, becomes a kind of limit for his relationships and the identity he’s projected in Spain. He’s often worried that he’s failed to understand, but as the book goes on, he’s perhaps even more worried that he’s been understood: that Isabel or Teresa know what he actually said and so stop experiencing his statements of having the “echo of poetic possibility.” This is one domain where Adam’s aestheticization of experience gets him in trouble. But it’s an extreme case of something I think we all do. Certainly I’ve known couples whose relationship seemed to depend on their not speaking each other’s language; expats who have dumped (or been dumped by) their significant other as soon as they could understand the significance of each other’s sentences without the glimmer of the virtual. So if you stay in Italy or bring someone back you might want to develop a sustainable strategy for defeating actuality.
Maybe literature is a way we work against fluency, a way of creating a language within the language where the experience of “/” is protected from actuality. Virgule comes from virgawhich means rod in Latin and in English refers to rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground. That’s a nice figure, I think, for the virtual: wisps of precipitation that never arrive. (Does this have something to do with the etymology of Viagra?)
AF Let’s talk about the book’s space for language-as-place more. That “Lost in Translation” topos that situates not only what can possibly happen narratively—Adam’s two opposing and competing female interests; the novel’s opening in a museum; its closing in the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid bombings—but also the sizable materials for the author / narrator’s reflections on poetry, sex, grief, drugs and more.
I’m thinking first of the aphasia that attends the constant extrasensory attention to random, minuscule details—from the shape of European toilets or plugs, to meatier matters like the fog of literality that infuses each communication’s promise, and encounter. One thinks of that striking phrase from Wittengstein—“The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated.” Jeez, ain’t that the truth. Being a foreigner doesn’t so much isolate you from asking for the Internet or how to find the discotheque with sexier people. But it does show you that aside from all the words you don’t recognize, it’s the intonations and languages-within-languages that you’re inherently, well, excluded from.
BL There is a lot of “silent adjusting” in the book, especially of the face: Adam has a particular look he wears around more attractive people to make his “insufficiencies appear chosen, to give [his] unstylish hair, clothes, etc., the force of protest.” He has a particular expression of disdain for other tourists, involving his eyebrows. Teresa is particularly good (he thinks) at tactically modulating facial expressions: “Her face was formidable; it seemed by turns very young and very old; when she opened her eyes wide, she looked like a child, and when she squinted them in concentration, the tiny wrinkles at their outer corners made her seem worldly, wise. Because she could instantly look younger or older, more innocent or experienced than she was, she could parry whatever speech was addressed to her,” and so on. The novel tends to describe the expressive machinations of the face more than it describes the attributes of the face itself. It talks a lot about Teresa’s eyes, for example, but never mentions their color. The book includes a fragment of a black and white photograph of Maria Schneider taken on the set of The Passenger, a movie Adam has never seen; Teresa is said by another character to resemble her. The photograph is not only colorless, but it’s cropped so as to exclude the eyes, the feature of Teresa’s face that’s most often “adjusting.” So the novel stays silent about the crucial mechanisms of silent adjustment by refusing to attempt to produce an image of these complexes (faces) that communicate visually. And the significance of these communicative strategies is, as you say, heightened because “Adam” can’t take the verbal for granted in Spain.
I am going on about all of this (and pirating Wittgenstein’s phrase) because I want to say that a formal problem of translation underlies all the other thematic problems of translation in the book, and that’s the question of how prose translates or fails to translate into images, how an optical realism is achieved or purposefully frustrated. The novel’s silence about certain elements of exposition and detail and its inclusion of photographs—that are never illustrative in any straightforward way, but always contain the promise of the illustrative—inscribes what you called the “’Lost in Translation’ topos” into the structure of the book. I know this is a strange and tangential way to answer your question, but I think the relation of prose to the optical is in an important parallel to the relation of the verbal to the nonverbal within the novel.
AF There’s a neat ode to John Ashbery in the middle of the book when Adam explains in typical hyper-articulate fashion what he finds so prepossessing about Ashbery’s work, which he claims as one of the truly important corpuses of contemporary literature.
So, say something about John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962). That book, as we know, was written in the middle of his time in Paris (1956–1966). It signals a departure from the Audenesque classicalism of Some Trees toward a radical engagement with collage and American colloquialism. The poems are unique not only for their rampant cubism but a newer, more assured mournful tonality, I think. In a way, isn’t Leaving the Atocha Station a prolonged essay on what its title alludes to, a re-envisioning of the Ashbery-in-Paris narrative by your novelist’s protagonist, but also, by you?
What of course seems different is that eruption of the political within the framework of aesthetic liberation that Ashbery’s work, and The Tennis Court Oath in particular, signifies. But the title does more than wink at a seminal book for American poetics (especially for LangPo, East and West coast inventors and researchers); the title—given your novel’s trajectory—reorients it. That is, Atocha is also the station of the 2004 Madrid bombings—and while your work begins with your young narrator inside a museum, meditating on the possibility of profundity in any contemporary setting, it soon opens outwards onto a global stage. I’m interested, as you can see, therefore, how “Atocha” is, perhaps more than an allusion, a pun—one side of the coin, Ashberyian aesthetics, and its lineage of aesthetic free-play; the other side of the coin, a repoliticization of language given 9/11 and terrorism, as in your previous books’ engagement between form and protest.
BL I like your observation about the way the title evokes Ashbery’s own time abroad—and the strange work that arose from his being outside of English. Adam Gordon’s poems are collages, although not nearly as interesting as Ashbery’s, and I think it’s reasonable to speculate that both Gordon and Ashbery are drawn toward a sense of language as assemblage in part because they’re living outside of English. And I think you’re also correct that the title here evokes the aesthetic and the political and the troubled relation between them. The title names the site of the tragedy only to “leave” it; is there a turning away from the political toward poetry? Or is what’s being left the poem—the virtual Atocha station of poetry—for a place made actual by the irruption of the historical real?
Chris Nealon has a beautiful reading of Ashbery’s poetry (of the ‘70s) in The Matter of Capital as staging a kind of “wandering away” from crisis, what he calls Ashbery’s “optional apocalypse”—an embracing of the minority of the poet as a way of dealing with the guilt of being part of the American hegemon but without any real power to change it. Adam Gordon does a lot of wandering away—most notably during the protests—and he also articulates his commitment to the arts through series of negations about their political efficacy:
“ . . . I tried hard to imagine . . . how my poems could be said meaningfully to bear on the deliberate and systematic destruction of a people or a planet, the abolition of classes, or in any sense constitute a significant political intervention. I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium . . . then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.”
Gordon isn’t a modernist (or a Language poet, for that matter) who believes in the traditional vanguard dream of a poetry that can overcome the difference between art and life and directly intervene in history, although later in the book he will evoke that fantasy. But that’s not to say the position he’s articulating here is apolitical, exactly: I think he’s saying that the arts preserve the possibility of alterity precisely by enabling us to experience a desire for something other than the given, by allowing us to wander away from official reality, to experience our own agency. This is at least compatible with one of Ashbery’s few statements on the relation between poetry and politics: “All poetry is against war and in favor of life, or else it isn’t poetry, and it stops being poetry when it is forced into the mold of a particular program. Poetry is poetry. Protest is protest. I believe in both forms of action” (in The Nation, May ’67).
The scene where the novel discusses Ashbery’s poems at length and tries to account for how they produce an intensification of life by enabling an immediate experience of mediacy—by making us conscious of our reading as we read, by compelling us to attend to our attention—takes place when he is literally leaving the Atocha Station by train for Granada with Isabel. But that’s before the bombing. I think the book ultimately leaves open the question of whether or not the attacks change his position about the relationship between poetry and politics, the virtual and the actual. It’s certainly not a question I can answer.
Adam Fitzgerald teaches poetry at Rutgers University and Marymount College, and is the founding editor of Maggy and Monk Books. His poems and interviews have appeared and are forthcoming in The Agricultural Reader, Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Poetry, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. He lives in the East Village.