I've read Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and there's something I have to get off my chest before I can begin discussing the work itself. In an era where gorgeous books open my wallet all over town, it's unconscionable that Coffee House continues to put out such a relentless parade of ugliness. The most offensive part is that the books look cheap, like galleys. They need to put on an extra turtleneck for those chilly Minnesota winters and sort this shit out.
Moving right along...Lerner's book is one more brick in the likable, 3.5 star wall of contemporary American fiction that is recommended to the WTT. Perhaps that's not enough of a compliment. While slight in areas like love or the American expat experience, the novel is quite wonderful when addressing language acquisition.
Early in the book I nodded along to several bits that elegantly described the disconnect between knowledge of words and fluency. Like me, I sensed that our protagonist Adam was excellent in Spanish class without having any idea of how to absorb the language aurally:
She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs, hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.
That's a great passage, exactly the understanding I could get from a Madrileño speaking to me at the conclusion of my minor in Spanish. Or the effect I get sometimes drifting off to sleep while watching a subtitled French film.
I made it through the novel thinking the title referred to a completely different poem than it actually does. As any poetry MFA worth his salt could tell you, "Leaving the Atocha Station" is the blab of arctic honey in John Ashbery's second book, The Tennis Court Oath. If, hypothetically, one were a blogger looking for something intelligent to say about the poem and turned to the internet for help, he'd only find people using terms like "Pollock," and "obscure," and summarizing the poem thusly: "it just is." It just is the frustration of what Lyn Hejinian would say is my rage to know. I would venture that Lerner selected for his title a poem that matches his narrator's deliberately obscure verse, another writer who wished to push his readers further from narrative. Also a rather large plot detail in Leaving the Atocha Station occurs at Atocha Station.
The poem actually on my mind while reading the novel is from Houseboat Days (really the only Ashbery book I consider mine ("The Other Tradition," is the first Ashbery poem I can remember reading (that "Emblazoned" is now a word I can only associate with t-shirts))). I'll have you know that in my misremembering I at least got the train part of the station correct. "Melodic Trains" begins with a girl's toy wristwatch, its painted hands, presumably, right twice a day. Observing the anxiousness of his fellow travelers our speaker says wisely: "any stop before the final one creates / Clouds of anxiety, of sad, regretful impatience." Here I am now, waiting in a terrible hurry for trains almost every day, sometimes coming back to the lines: "there is so little / Panic and disorder in the world, and so much unhappiness."