Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner has a new (2nd) book out this year (10:14), so I am reading an earlier one (1st) in order to be behind the times. His new book is apparently highly autobiographical, in that it’s about a man (Lerner) who’s previously written a book (Leaving the Atocha Station) and is now writing another book (10:14). All this I knew already; and it already made me suspicious.

It’s not simply its self-absorption that’s the issue with Leaving the Atocha Station (it’s about a man (Lerner) who’s been given a scholarship to Spain, and is trying to write some poetry); my main issue with it in fact is its over-analysis. Since I’m idly reading particularly contemporary books with a mind to discovering the fundamental flaws in the writing, I thought I’d for a bit analyse this idea of over-analysis. (Over-analysis, I must admit, has long been an issue in my own writing – against which I am currently taking measures).

Firstly, in what does Lerner’s over-analysis consist? – It consists in this: during the course of this book, all that ever happens is that Lerner thinks through things, in great detail, and at times – as is the way of these things – in quite some degree of abstraction such that the reader, knowing there’s probably nothing worthwhile to be found in any of it, skims over it all at his complacent leisure. Lerner acts or reacts, and then spends five pages considering his action or reaction. Now I don’t personally believe novels should show and not tell; that isn’t necessarily the function of the novel; but it occurs to me that there is a certain art in being able at times to show which might alleviate the tedium of telling quite so much. For instance, rather than detailing to such a degree the thoughts that passed through your mind when something (usually quite trivial) happened, why not let the reader do some work for a change (his imagination is in fact quite wide ranging and possibly just as interesting as yours – because, let’s face it, if it wasn’t, he’s probably not going to understand or appreciate your book anyway) – why not let the reader think what it’s like to, um, for instance, I don’t know, wake up. (I appreciate, of course, that if Lerner did get on with the narrative this way, the book would only be about five pages long).

What’s odd is that: despite the fact that he spends so much time analysing things, I really don’t understand throughout the course of this book why the narrator (Lerner) acts as he acts. Why does he keep lying to people (and then go on about it for five pages afterwards)?

I wonder if Lerner is at all influenced by Roberto Bolaño. It’s just, well, it’s all about people wanting to become poets, and then not really doing much about becoming poets but spending their time sleeping with women and thinking about stuff (and taking drugs) instead. Also, he has a character called Arturo.

The writing is quite flat and dead and monotonous. (sc: studied, affectless prose poetry, such as all great contemporary writers use).

And it made me wonder, reading it, if this wasn’t the kind of book to rile that Engdahl fellow. It seems to me it’s set in Spain in the same way Heart of Darkness is set in Africa: – oh, we’ll grant the Spanish have the Prado and Granada and things like that, but I’m not convinced from the narrative that they actually exist (the Spanish, I mean); they are just constructs of the other, against which the narrator can discuss his self-obsessed white drug-taking middle-class Americanness.

I’ve read 120 pages of this book; it’s only 180 pages, but I’m struggling now to go on. I don’t care about the narrator or the outcome of any of his relationships, or what his pathetic self-absorbed middle-class American reaction is going to be to the terrorist attack that just taken place on Atocha station. How it fucking changes him or doesn’t change him or leaves him completely indifferent.

I gave up on Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence too. The first four pages were promising: it was about this rich couple, who had a daughter who was a midget, and so that she didn’t feel out of place, they kept her at home where her only companions were midgets, so that this was her entire conception of the world. I was thinking, that’s actually rather an interesting idea, but then Fitzgerald completely forgot about that and started writing a tedious love story set in post-war Italy instead (neo-realist, as someone said on the dust-jacket: – neo-realist, that is, insofar as it’s set in post-war Italy, but having absolutely nothing else in common with neo-realism – just your traditional English tale about goddamn class). I read 40 pages or so.

I’ve been reading some good stuff too (Raymond Queneau’s The Bark Tree, for instance); maybe I should have told you about that instead.

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6 thoughts on “Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

  1. “The writing is quite flat and dead and monotonous. (sc: studied, affectless prose poetry, such as all great contemporary writers use).”

    That was what especially repulsed me when I read the first pages in Amazon, the newspaper prose. Who has time for that crap? I have books by Lobo Antunes, Nabokov, Gass and Theroux at home to read.

  2. I must admit, I didn’t realise it for the time; I think he confused me by putting in some semi-colons; but the cumulative effect is certainly monotony. It never changes pitch, which perhaps fits in with the narrator’s general indifference, but doesn’t help in artistic terms. – It’s all Hemingway’s fault, I’m sure; who of course also wrote books about Spain in which there were relationships with women (his first novel, indeed – it was set in Spain, wasn’t it?), but I suppose not so much analysis.

  3. Long time no read.

    “The first four pages were promising: it was about this rich couple, who had a daughter who was a midget, and so that she didn’t feel out of place, they kept her at home where her only companions were midgets,”

    Penelope must have been to Vicenza where the Villa Valmarana has a garden with statues of dwarfs to reassure their daughter that she wasn’t alone. I think, but can’t verify that the servants were all dwarves as well.

    The villa itself has some very perverse murals by Tiepolo. The dwarf statues are interesting too – more Gothic than from any Italian tradition.

    Glad you enjoyed The Bark Tree, it’s one of my all-time favourite books. It’s constructed using very precise mathematical means which are not obvious at all.

  4. OK, I didn’t realise the only good part of the novel hadn’t even come from her imagination; it’s all in there: the garden with the dwarfs etc.

    The Bark-Tree is easily my favourite Queneau so far (I’ve also read The Sunday of Life and The Flight of Icarus, with bits of Exercises in Style). I’ve no idea about the mathematical stuff; my edition claimed it started life as a slang version of Descartes, and I’ve no idea what that meant either.

  5. Children of Clay is interesting as it evolved out of a study of literature written by ( for want of a better description ) mad people. It has large sections of their writing which are virtually unreadable due to highly personal obsessive pedantic descriptions of how the world works.

    In theory it’s a great idea ( the literary equivalent of art brut ) but the reality is a bit too much hard work. I guess that’s why Queneau abandoned the original idea and incorporated bits into another story.

    All his books are worth a read – most are a bit more straight forward than the Bark Tree though. I’m told that they read better in the original French but the main translator Barbara Wright does a pretty good job – some of his sentences change tense and viewp[oint in the middle so must have been difficult to get a handle on.

  6. OK, having only Zazie in my possession left to read, I’ve ordered a few more: Saint Glinglin, We Always Treat Women Too Well and The Blue Flowers.

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