October 1, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 16°C
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Bios & Memoirs


Dream Story

The takeoff point for Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," Schnitzler's novella is an erotic rumination.

The Spinning Heart

Donal Ryan's fictional vision of housing bust Ireland is both smart and shattering.


The debut of Claire Vaye Watkins offers a withering view of the contemporary American southwest.

The Melancholy of Resistance

Lázló Krasznahorkai's majestic whale and circus story portrays decay as a virtue.

Fullblood Arabian

Syrian Osama Alomar conjures tiny parables that acquire universal meaning.

Hawthorn & Child

Keith Ridgway takes detective fiction to a place it never knew existed.

Leaving the Atocha Station
By Ben Lerner
Granta, 2011. 182 pages

Meet Adam Gordon, a self-loathing American writer on a fellowship to Spain — the year is terrorism-tinged 2006 — to construct what he calls his "project," a "long and research-drive poem" about the literary meaning of the Spanish Civil War, a subject he immediately claims to know nothing about. Adam is a "violent, bipolar, compulsive liar"; Adam is "a pothead, maybe an alcoholic"; Adam is convinced of the "total vacuity of my project." So why listen to Adam, a blacker-than-black Woody Allen who once thought Ortega y Gasset was two people, like Calvin and Hobbes? In part because his suffocating self-consciousness and contagious adolescence has a wickedly funny side, and because his digging into fraudulence also reflects the 21st-century narcissism he works sneakily to break apart. One Spanish girlfriend bores him, another does not; the relationships, lived between tranquilizers and spliffs, are, to put it mildly, complicated.

Fulbright-winner Lerner's semi-autobiographical Adam is bumpy light pouring from a reel-to-reel projector, a thing of a haze, headlights in a doe, the reversal of the known that proves only "reality's unavailability." In part, this is one kid's fictional chronicle, diary-style, of a drugged out year in Spain, among fascinating aliens. But another equally important part is preposterousness and fraudulence as a state of human being, or being human, with the "performance art" of living and lying emerging as a result (call it, as Adam does, the consequence of "negative capability.") Lerner is a clever writer, and at times a funny one, but using insecurity and spoofed self-absorption as a story-telling conceit has its limits. Adam isn't really in Spain. He's in Adam — "… a few strains of rumination away from full orchestral panic," which means the act of looking inward repeatedly yields the same kind of kooky self-loathing. The comically malign act of mocking fraudulence turns ironic, as does the send-up of a "standardized" life. And, cleverness aside, the irony just won't quit.

Though Atocha is the Madrid station where trains were blown up by a terrorist bomb, the title refers to a John Ashbery poem.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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