Monday, June 04, 2012

[Books] Book Look: Leaving Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Book Look: Leaving Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner: Let me state outright that I like this book and enjoyed reading it. I want to make that clear because I'm going to say a lot of things that may sound disparaging, especially concerning peripheral topics. But this is a good book. Nicely written. Engaging in its own way.

This is story of a young American poetry student living on an arts fellowship in Madrid. He engages in the usual idiotic activities of youth along with equally idiotic young Spaniards -- the political and sexual posing; drugs and laziness and calculated disaffection. It's standard coming of adulthood stuff. If you've read Apple Pie (and you have, haven't you?) you've gotten my take on it. You could go all back to F. Scott and This Side of Paradise for that matter. In fact, when you include the expat American in Europe themes of Fitzgerald's other work you could see a good deal commonality here, if Lerner's lead character wasn't such a wuss.

The lead's primary struggle is with authenticity. His poetry is manufactured not inspired, but everybody seems to think it's something special. He lies without truly understanding why he lies, eventually realizing that life is often a stack of lies which you try to keep re-sorting in order to present yourself to your advantage. His inauthentic haunts him, making him feel half alive. Later, in the face of the terrorist bombing of the Madrid subway, he sees that everyone reacts tangentially, taking actions that they would have taken anyway and that are to the benefit of their self-image, but with the sudden sense that they are more real. Eventually he comes to a quasi-resolution that if everything is inauthentic, inauthenticity in itself is authentic. Kind of wishy-washy, but so is life and youth.

There are a lot of red flags, though. First, the story is at least somewhat autobiographical. Lerner, according to the book cover, is a poet whom spent some time in Spain on a fellowship. So we have a writer writing about a writer. That generally means that your audience is probably other writers, so it's not surprising that our lead ruminates and ponders the living hell out of absolutely everything. Lerner uses his poet's word skills to keep it intriguing, but honestly, the 958th time he would go twisting some trivial event into metaphysical significance I had to skip ahead a bit.

So it was decent read, but not really moving. What I really want to talk about is the blurbs on the cover. It's a reasonably well-known fact that cover blurbs are a matter of who you know, not who's read your book. Author's regularly pass along cover blurbs to friends or at the publisher's request, with the general expectation that the favor will be returned when the time comes. As such, I've learned to ignore them completely. It's interesting that even writers who would take a stridently principled stand against crass commercialism engage in this practice, which just goes to show how malleable our ethics are when self-interest raises its eyebrows.

Anyway, the blurbs on Leaving Atocha Station are really quite rich.

"A beautiful novel...not like anything I can remember." That's about as nondescript as they come, and not a little intentional uncertainty there -- meaning nothing specific about the work. This from the only person who could conceivably pass as a popular mainstream novelist, Jonathan Franzen. Not to be snarky, but this blurb sounds like it was written by Frazen's personal assistant. Or maybe some kind of review-bot.

"One of the truest (and funniest) novels I know of by a writer of his generation." -- Lorin Stein, NY Review of Books. Well it is certainly true in the sense of being heavily autobiographical and a good capture of young, pretentious idiots in search of authenticity. But it's not really that funny.

"A subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel...Lerner is attempting to capture something the most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and "conflict" fail to do." -- James Wood, the New Yorker. It's not that funny. Geez. And yes, it's short and quick reading, and without a lot of extraneous garbage -- a positive quality in a book, but not a new invention. See: P.G. Wodehouse.

"Flip, hip, smart, and very funny." -- Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air. IT'S NOT THAT FUNNY. Good grief.

"An extraordinary novel about the intersection of art and reality in contemporary life." - John Ashberry. While those things are hinted at in the novel, it's really more about -- and I may have mentioned this -- young people acting like pretentious idiots in search of authenticity. But this one is my favorite because here is a quote from the novel's lead character.
...This strange experience of reading, the sense of harmony between rhythms of a reproduction and the real...this was what I valued in one of the only people I described as a "major poet" without irony, John Ashberry.
That's so, so, so rich. The book features a blurb from a guy the book praises. Dear Mr. Ashberry, I just wrote a book where I describe you as "one of the only people I would call a 'major poet' without irony." Any chance I can get a blurb? Now that's funny. A novel about authenticity as performance art commentary on authenticity. Do you suppose that's what everyone is talking about?

Should you read Leaving Atocha Station? Won't hurt ya. I can't imagine anyone truly hating the book. But there is a pile of stuff in there that only a writer could like. It's worth scanning the Amazon preview before you buy.