May 2012

The Believer Book Award

The Seventh Annual—Hereby Presented To

Leaving the Atocha Station
by Ben Lerner

How can a story of an American artist abroad still be fresh and interesting? Yet Ben Lerner makes it so. In Lerner’s hilarious and sensitive novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, a young poet named Adam Gordon plays a deeply identifiable (self-doubting, pretentious, plagued-by-his-moment-in-history) fool. Lerner’s three previous books of (marvellous) poetry were no doubt the training ground for his incredible sensitivity to the nuances of thought, for his beautiful and flawless sentences, and for his power to evoke scenes in the mind. The book is short, but so dense and full of life and feeling.

Did we call Adam a fool? If so, he is a fool like us: he is a fool for love, a fool for his own most idealized self-image, and a fool for art. It’s perhaps his striving to write great poetry like his hero, John Ashbery, while doubting that poetry is of any use at all, that is the most captivating aspect of this book; it’s exciting to see a poet eviscerate poetry (it’s no fun to see those who don’t care about it do so) and simultaneously praise it as the one, final thing that redeems this horrible, destructive world.

Maybe best of all is a middle-of-the-book interlude where Adam gchats with another friend who is abroad (not on a fellowship in Spain, as Adam is, but in Mexico with his girlfriend). Who knew a transcribed gchat conversation could be such a great device for suspense and drama?

This book seems to hover between reality and fiction. What’s real? What’s fiction? Lerner gives no clues. But that’s not the point. What’s really real is its deep intelligence and the great pleasure one gets from reading it. Oh, and the opening essay, which takes place in a museum: possibly the most accurate depiction of why we, in this day and age, are more riveted by real life than by any great painting or novel or work of art. Something Lerner is not necessarily happy about. Something this book is destined to fix.

An Excerpt From Leaving The Atocha Station

I was at least by this time repeating I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but Miguel broke loose or Jorge released him and he hit me in the mouth.

It wasn’t a powerful blow, but I figured I should let it lay me out. Miguel was screaming at me and the noise brought Isabel and her friends back from the lake. Miguel allowed Jorge to pull him away and calm him down. I could taste the blood from my mildly cut lip and I bit hard to deepen the cut so that I would appear more injured and therefore solicit sufficient sympathy to offset the damage my smiling had done. As I covered my face in my hands and writhed as though in pain, I was careful to spread the blood around, and when I picked myself up and reentered the firelight Isabel gasped and said my mother, my God. I walked out of the ensuing silence down to the lake and began to wash my face. After a few minutes I heard footsteps on the dry grass: Isabel.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand what story you said before to me,” is probably what I said. “My Spanish is very bad. I get nervous.”

“Your Spanish is good,” she said. “How is your face?”

“My face is good,” I said, which made her laugh. She undid her hair and took the scarf and dipped it and wrung it out and used it to wipe the rest of the blood from my face and then dipped it and wrung it out. She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full.

© 2011 by Ben Lerner. excerpted by permission of Coffee House Press.

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