Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner (Coffee House Press; 2011)
What's curious about this book is the attention and adulation it received in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and so many other high places. In fact, I first discovered the title when I read not a review, but an essay about it in The Times book review section, an essay that in form and content seemed to say this is a work that’s too important to be dealt with in a mere review.
The book, an original trade paperback, is clearly a memoir dressed up as a novel that is the author's reflection on a character that shares many traits with the author. He hails from the same town, attended the same university, etc.
Not a great deal happens. The protagonist/poet smokes hash and lies to just about everybody throughout a Fulbright year in Spain. The lies are to help the character/author get something he wants or to embellish himself or are told for no apparent reason. He wants others to think well of him although he never gives a damn about the people around him. The character is also frequently nauseated. In fact, page after page he is literally, not figuratively, nauseous or vomiting. This appears to mean that the protagonist is often aware he’s behaving badly so we should pull for him. I often wished the author could find some other way to indicate this. Even if it really happened, do we need to know the gastrointestinal details?
Many critics seemed to think this book was an astute look at the artist's connection to art, but actually Lerner had little to say on it. It would be unfair to tell you precisely how it ended. I stayed to the finish out of curiosity that wasn’t sparked by anything within the work itself. The book was so well-received I thought for a while it might somehow pull itself out of its deep hole with a magnificent ending. It didn’t. The character/author seemed to think he'd figured things out by the last page, but he hadn't. The character was still repulsive, although the author didn't seem to recognize this and clearly believed some degree of salvation had transpired.
Perhaps psychologists can find clues in the fact that although the narrator is attracted to women, only men get detailed physical descriptions. Women's looks are depicted only through their attire. He also doesn't seem to notice that he's more or less a non-gendered metrosexual who, when things go wrong, checks himself out in the mirror. Enough. I really shouldn't hammer away at the writer because it's the avalanche of positive reviews for a very mediocre work that disturbs me. Others who were not impressed have speculated that perhaps critics loved it because they share many traits with the protagonist. That could explain some of the praise, but I’m not sure it’s the most important factor. I'm saddened by what “Station” tells us about the nature and competence of the establishment that defines literature and then pronounces judgment on its findings.
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