:: Article

Turning the Novel on Its Head

A critical study of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station by Alex Gallo-Brown.

In “The Theory Generation,” an essay in n+1, the critic Nicholas Dames examined literary theory as it appeared in a slew of recent, acclaimed, conventionally realist novels. Rather than apply theory to their novels’ structure, Dames argued, contemporary authors Teju Cole, Jennifer Egan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ben Lerner, Sam Lipsyte, and Lorrie Moore had incorporated allusions to literary theory into the narratives of their novels themselves. The characters, in these examples, must contend with the ideas of the avant garde as opposed to their creators.

Representations of theory varied from book to book but in Leaving the Atocha Station debut novelist (and accomplished poet) Ben Lerner appeared to be using the form of realist fiction to explore the psychology of a young poet who had been steeped in theory’s teachings. The social alienation experienced by Lerner’s protagonist/narrator/alter ego Adam seemed, in part, to be a consequence of his overdeveloped critical faculties, faculties he had to overcome, the book implied, or at least temper, if he wished to enter the world of normative adult relations. This, one might argue, is the trajectory Lerner meant to trace in Leaving the Atocha Station: the growing up and away from a place of paralyzing hyper-intellectuality into a state of being more amenable to emotional fulfillment.

There is a way, though, to turn the novel on its head, to apply literary theory back onto the work itself to better explicate its themes. By doing so, one might even succeed in shedding light onto the situation of the author himself.

In the novel’s early pages, Adam, a young American poet on fellowship in Madrid, spends most of his time alone, smoking hash, drinking coffee or swallowing prescription tranquilizers, occupying museums, movie theaters or city parks, reading Tolstoy, Lorca or John Ashbery. He also comprises “translations,” an obscure and seemingly arbitrary method by which he constitutes his creative work. He expresses skepticism over these pages about nearly every form of human communication in existence: he distrusts art and its capacity to inspire transcendent experience; he doubts his ability to communicate in Spanish or, for that matter, in any language; he actually fears artistic inspiration. His is a world of near-total referentiality, cultural signifiers wrenched free of their signifieds. It is a world made bearable only by intense and repetitive chemical alteration.

Adam’s perspective early in the novel is reminiscent of Jean Baudrillard’s in his canonical work of literary theory, Simulations. In Simulations, Baudrillard argued that the old paradigm of representation, the wager that “a sign could refer to the depth of meaning…could exchange for meaning”—a wager, incidentally, that all of Western culture depended on—had collapsed in the face of simulation. Signs, in Baudrillard’s view, no longer referred to the “real” but instead comprised an almost flawless “simulacrum,” a convincing but ultimately artificial lacquer which concealed the extinction of authentic reality. This was the third order of simulation, or “hyperreality.”

It is such a world that confronts Adam. Having lied on a successful fellowship application—he claims to be researching the Spanish Civil War, a subject that does not interest him and which he knows almost nothing about—he spends most of his mornings in museums despite a recurrent fear that he is “incapable of having a profound experience of art,” reads literature for the experience of “directionality” he attains rather than to ascertain information or meaning, and produces creative work only through the aforementioned “translation”—a process by which he opens a book of Lorca poems at random, uses whatever page he happens to flip to as a template, and then engages in Spanish to English translation, free association, and other absurdist literary techniques—such as braiding lines together from unrelated texts—to create “poems.” There is no illusion, here, that poetry “means anything”—that is, that it refers back to an authentic reality Adam has experienced or imagined and wishes to communicate to a future reader. In a way, he is like the vision of the poet put forth by Vilem Flusser in Does Writing Have a Future?: “Even the language [the poet] manipulates no longer seems like raw material stacked up inside him but rather like a complex system pressing in around him to be remixed. His attitude to a poem is no longer that of an inspired and intuitive poet but that of an information designer.” For Adam, as for Flusser, poetry seems to exist not to communicate transcendent meaning or inspire sublime experience but instead to “remix” cultural signs into unusual or surprising patterns. Poetry even takes on a negative function for Adam, providing a screen for his audience to “project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience, whatever that might be, or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility.” In contemporary life, poetry exists only to indicate its own irrelevance, evidence its own meaninglessness.

This is a wasteland. This is, as the critic Andreas Huyssen has written about Baudrillard’s work, “a theory of catastrophe and of nihilism, a Nietzchean nihilism come into its own with the help of technology.” In a culture where signs have ceased to refer to an authentic reality, the poet finds herself at a loss when seeking truth, beauty, or meaning of any kind. She can remix the signs, as Flusser believes the new poets will do, or she can float, detached, in the kind of ultra-mediated hyperreality articulated by Baudrillard. And in the early pages of Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam proves exceedingly adept at the former. He attains the prestigious fellowship by falsifying his application; he insinuates himself into an elite Spanish literary crowd by pretending to be someone he is not; he even attains romantic partners through dissimulation, first claiming, falsely, that his mother has died, then likening his father, a good-natured American liberal, to the Spanish dictator Franco. Adam is nothing if not a clever remixer, a skillful programmer.

There are consequences to his actions, however, less material than existential. For it brings Adam no spiritual satisfaction to “remix” signs for his own personal gain. If Baudrillard’s third order of representation, as Huyssen has argued, contained a religious element—“A melancholy fixation on the loss of the real flips over into a desire to get beyond the real, beyond the body, beyond history. It is a religious desire, a desire for ultimate transcendence”—Adam seems to not yet have made this leap. Instead, he finds himself suspended between historical phases: the second, industrial order of representation articulated by Walter Benjamin, and Baudrillard’s hyperreality, which represents a total break from earlier conceptions about art, media, representation, and reality. Despite the hollowness of the signs that surround him and despite his ability to perceive them as such, Adam remains cleaved to traditional, more or less referential notions about poetry and art. The result is existential despair.

This conflict becomes most pronounced during a poetry reading, still in the early pages of the novel, when Adam is asked to read alongside a Spanish poet named Tomas. Tomas’s work could not be any more different than Adam’s, a litany of trite, maudlin clichés. While the audience moons, Adam is appalled. Later, performing his own poems—“mistranslations intermixed with repurposed fragments from deleted e-mails”—Adam reads in monotone, as though announcing the arrival of a train. Rather than attempt to “move” his audience, Adam seems only to want to demonstrate the fundamental deadness of his medium, to draw attention to an art form “no longer practicable for whatever reasons, whose former power could be only felt as a loss.”

After the reading, Adam stands outside smoking, listening to audience members argue about what kinds of poetry produce what kinds of politics. He remains aloof from the conversation, however, unable to align himself with either side, or with any side. He tries to imagine poems “as machines that could make things happen,” but cannot. And yet when he imagines a world without poetry, he feels “an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual.” In such a world, he thinks, he would “swallow a bottle of white pills.”

This is the crux of Adam’s conflict. If the system by which Western culture achieves its meaning has imploded—Baudrillard locates the implosion in the “eruption of the binary scheme” which “renders inarticulate every discourse…shortcircuits …the dialectic of signifier and signified, of representing and represented”—then what happens to those of us who rely on such systems for spiritual and emotional fulfillment? What redemption, short of immersion in a Baudrillardian hyperreality, is available to people like Adam? Or even to people unlike him?

Lerner hints at an answer in Leaving the Atocha Station, but it isn’t so much redemption or transcendence he suggests but presence, what he calls “mediacy.” Reading Tolstoy on the train, Adam suddenly experiences an intensification of the present: “Every sentence, regardless of its subject, became mimetic of the action of the train, and the train mimetic of the sentence, and I felt suddenly coeval with its syntax.” This, in turn, reminds him of reading John Ashbery, the only modern poet he admires. “The best Ashbery poems describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces,” Adam tells us. “And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately…By reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence.” It is this feeling of presence—the experience of experiencing your own experience—that the best poetic work still offers Adam. Small comfort, perhaps, but it is something.

Alas, it is not enough. For shortly after experiencing this “mediacy,” Adam’s life begins to spiral out of control. The wanton manipulation of signs is having deleterious effects on his mental health. Suddenly he wants to “write great poems…to take on the United States of Bush, to shed its scare quotes…This was less a new faith in poetry than a sudden loss of faith in pure potentiality.” For the first time Adam finds himself wanting to create significant art. The new work, he believes, will assemble “the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it.” This ambition represents a severe departure from Adam’s earlier ideas about poetry; it is a sentiment which belongs more to the tradition of modernism than to the postmodernism of Ashbery and Baudrillard. Indeed, a reference to The Waste Land ensues in the very next paragraph. Adam does not want to live in this hyperreal state. He wants the real.

Ultimately, however (and predictably, if one believes Baudrillard), Adam fails in these ambitions. His literary failure is soon twinned when his girlfriend, Isabel, leaves him for a former boyfriend. Their relationship has always been tenuous, premised on deceit and maintained by the same, and yet this second defeat provokes in Adam an even more severe emotional breakdown than the first. One can use Baudrillard to shed light: “For the sign to be pure, it has to duplicate itself: it is the duplication of the sign which destroys its meaning.” Adam’s failures in literature and romance, one after the other, reinforce “the idea of the model”: the notion that reality has given way to hyperreality, that the map precedes the territory. There will be no great poems or romances for Adam, this second failure seems to say. He may have lost faith in “pure potentiality,” the lyric mediacy represented by Ashbery, but he has found nothing to replace it with other than dissatisfying consumerism—he takes Isabel out to an expensive restaurant using his parents’ credit card—and “real,” plaintive, existential despair.

Throughout the novel, Adam has referred to the successive phases of his “project”—the first phase, second phase, and so on. The project is never clearly defined, and it is possible, indeed probable, Adam has not been at work on any project at all, has only been pretending to be at work on a project in order to validate his identity as a poet (to himself) and justify his position in a prestigious and remunerative fellowship program (to others). The illusion comes crashing down in the book’s final sections. “I was a violent, bipolar, compulsive liar,” he declares. “I was a real American. I was never going to flatten space or shatter it.” This is reality, he decides: he is a fraud, a faker, a degenerate drug addict with no real talent, ambition, or capacity for seriousness. Shortly after this admission, however, he finds himself contradicted by Teresa, an accomplished translator and new romantic interest. “Adam, you are a wonderful poet,” she tells him. “If I weren’t sure about that, why would I be translating you? When are you going to stop pretending you’re only pretending to be a poet?” This encounter leads him to think that maybe only his fraudulence has been fraudulent. Which is true? Is his project fake or real?

The novel never explicitly resolves this question. In the penultimate scene, Adam and Teresa are asked to speak at a panel on contemporary politics and literature. To prepare, Adam memorizes a series of vague Spanish phrases that he can apply to nearly any directed his way. It is a clever trick; the panel goes without a hitch. Afterwards, however, the deception leaves him unhinged. He vows to give up poetry, return to the United States, become a lawyer.

The novel closes in an art gallery owned by one of Adam’s Spanish literary friends. The friend has agreed to publish a bilingual chapbook of Adam’s poetry with translations by Teresa. The poet and translator plan to give a reading together to promote the book. As he approaches the gallery on the night of the reading, Adam discovers he does not feel anxious. He considers the prescription tranquilizers in his pocket but does not want one. Clearly, some progression has occurred. The novel’s last lines are: “Teresa would read the originals and I would read the translations and the translations would become the originals as we read. Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.”

Such an ending neatly evades questions of truth and fraudulence, reality and hyperreality. Yet there is some suggestion that Adam has passed through the eye of the storm. If ideas have not helped him to be the person he wants to be, perhaps his new friends will. It is not incidental that the story is told in the form of the realist novel, the most intellectually accessible of all the literary genres.

There is another way one might think about the novel, however, especially if one uses the theory of Baudrillard. It is not much of a stretch to interpret Adam as a thinly veiled Lerner. Like Adam, Lerner is a poet. (Leaving the Atocha Station follows three acclaimed collections of poetry.) Both men studied at Brown University; both were raised in Topeka, Kansas; both were awarded fellowships in Madrid; and both revere John Ashbery. It is on this latter point that the connection is most indisputable, especially if one takes into account Lerner’s 2010 essay, “The Future Continuous: Ashbery’s Lyric Mediacy.” In that essay, Lerner makes an argument about Ashbery’s poetry that is almost identical to the one articulated by Adam in Leaving the Atocha Station. (The novel was published in 2011.) “When Ashbery’s work manages to describe reading in the time of its own reading, we experience mediacy immediately,” Lerner writes as himself. “When you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately,” Lerner writes as Adam. The arguments are indistinguishable. This literary echoing is only further evidence that Adam is a stand-in for Ben.

One can only speculate about Lerner’s motivations for fictionalizing what appear to have been authentic autobiographical experiences—indeed, in the latter case, what appear to have been authentic autobiographical ideas. In an interview with The Believer magazine, however, Lerner cautioned against interpreting the novel as memoir, asserting that “in a novel so much about mediation, the question of how a novel mediates my experiences would seem to arise,” and “I am much more interested…in exploiting the blurriness of [art and life within art]…as opposed to investing further in me, the historical author of the books in question.” One reads, in these statements, skepticism about literature’s ability to represent authentic experience—skepticism of memoir.

However, one can also read into these statements doubt about the existence of authentic experience altogether. Again, Baudrillard helps to explicate this. In Simulations, Baudrillard described Disneyland as the near-apotheosis of third order simulation: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.”

Such theory gives us another way to interpret Adam and indeed the novel as a whole. It is a kind of Disneyland, constructed by Lerner to make us believe the author’s life, and our lives, are real, when in fact reality no longer exists—Lerner’s life only the simulation of a life, our lives only the simulations of lives, and so on.

Perhaps Lerner never grew up in Topeka, studied at Brown, or did the fellowship in Spain. He only thought he did.

Alex Gallo-Brown’s essays have appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Brooklyn Rail, Salon, and The Nervous Breakdown.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 14th, 2013.