Back to the Present
Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel about art, ambition, and a writer named Ben
by Ben Lerner
Faber & Faber
$25.00 List Price
In 2011 Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was brought out by Coffee House Press, a Minneapolis independent, to wide and deserving if improbable praise. Improbable because of its provenance, but more so because its author, thirty-two at the time, was already a decorated poet, with three collections and a National Book Award nomination to his name. There are in recent memory American poets who write novels—from John Ashbery and James Schuyler to Forrest Gander and Joyelle McSweeney—but crossover success, measured in terms of attention paid by organs like the New Yorker and the New York Times, is rare. (As for the poetry of prominent novelists—e.g., John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates—perhaps the less said the better.) And improbably, too, one of the novel’s subjects was poetry and its failures.
The narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon, a twentysomething American on a fellowship in Madrid in 2004, worries that as a poet he may be a fraud, and that his experiences of art are inauthentic or insufficiently profound, something that could also be said of his two love affairs with Spanish women. Another poet we see in the novel is plainly bad, his work “an Esperanto of clichés: waves, heart, pain, moon, breasts, beach, emptiness, etc.; the delivery was so cloying the thought crossed my mind that his apparent earnestness might be parody. But then he read his second poem, ‘Distance’: mountains, sky, heart, pain, stars, breasts, river, emptiness, etc.” Much of the novel’s humor springs from Adam’s hostility to poetry, his general aesthetic ambivalence,
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