Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, came out in 2011 on Minneapolis’ own Coffeehouse Press and everybody liked it. And they were right–it’s actually really good new fiction. I’m more (grudgingly) excited about than I am about most of what’s come out in the last three years, and I’m trying as hard as I can to steal from it.
1) My face indicated
The basic consumer insight behind LtAS is the xkcd insight: our currently-youthful generation largely doesn’t feel itself to be deserving of the privileges it’s earned. Lerner’s protagonist, Adam Gordon, has won a fellowship to study in Spain for several months—but it mostly makes him feel fraudulent. A more-fluent friend wrote the Spanish component of his application essay, and the epic/historical poem he’s supposed to be researching and composing isn’t happening. Instead he mostly does drugs and hangs out with what seem to be Spanish hipsters—but even in these circumstances he feels fraudulent. Some of the best writing in the book is about the series of conversational interactions in which he leverages his poor understanding of Spanish and reputation as a poet in order to convince his girlfriend Isabela that he’s more brilliant and incisive than he actually feels.
[It’s hard to feel that Lerner isn’t, in these passages, making a broader joke about poetry. If Gordon’s go-to conversational maneuver is the parataxis-implying-incommunicable-brilliance, then, well—what’s poetry?]
This is a good insight and Lerner gets pretty much everything he can out of it. [There may not be too much more going on in this book.] The basic writerly technology that he uses to communicate this is what I’d call the ‘my face indicated’ maneuver. In the ‘my face indicated’ maneuver, Gordon relates to us what situation he finds himself in and then his attempt to project himself in order to be perceived as reacting appropriately to the situation:
‘I was acutely aware of not being attractive enough for my surroundings; luckily I had a strategy for such situations…I opened my eyes a little more widely than normal…allowing my mouth to curl up into the implication of a smile…a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity, a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest…a dose of contempt I hoped would be read as political…The goal of this look was to make my insufficiencies appear chosen, to give my unstylish hair and clothes the force of protest; I was a figure for the outside of this life, I had known it and rejected it and now was back as an ambassador from a reality more immediate and just.’
Part of what makes the trick neat is that it’s formally fresh. Narrators are known for giving us exterior information about others and interior information about themselves. You hear how I feel and how others look. Gordon/Lerner here, though, gets a lot of mileage out of talking about how I look, or more accurately how I am trying to look.
But you could imagine a lot of neat tricks that didn’t matter; there’s no necessary identity between formal innovation and artistic incision. What makes Lerner’s face-indication game really work is that it feels particularly and essentially modern. Overgeneral and unsubstantiated assertions follow.
The ‘allocentric analysis of one’s own appearance’ moment, the rough parallel to the ‘my face indicated’ moment is one historically reserved for fictional endings, for epiphanies: driven and derided by vanity. Araby’s narrator has to build to that moment, though, through an entire childhood of self-involvement. But the Face-Indication Maneuver isn’t an epiphany—it’s Adam’s stock response to practically every situation. In LtAS allocentrism, usually sealed tightly within the epiphanic frame, is let free into the territory of standard narration.
[I might be using allocentric incorrectly here—exocentric may be more appropriate.]
As for why this works, or why this feels peculiarly modern—here it’s difficult to do much more than wave your hands and say that one of the major psychological circumstances of the present decade is the constant necessity to be both (1) aware of how you appear to others and (2) carefully adjusting that appearance. It’s easy to lament what facebook makes us on the internet; easy to forget that we’re becoming the same thing in our daily lives. If you called LtAS a ‘novella of personal branding,’ you wouldn’t be wrong.
2. The Associative Paragraph
Another common technology in LtAS is the Associative Paragraph. This is a paragraph (the one above is actually a loose example; many of the ellipses are comma and semicolon transitions) which seems designed to mimetize Adam’s wandering thought process. In the typical comma-associative paragraph, Adam begins with a thought, usually an observation, about something in the world around him or usually himself, he elaborates on that thought, the pattern of his thinking takes an unexpected turn, a rule or principle is proposed as a result of the reflection, a last wry remark is made, and then the world is returned to.
An example from the first page I opened to:
‘Excepting subways, a few commuter trains, and the miniature train in a Topeka park, I had never traveled by rail, as archaic a method of conveyance, I thought to myself, as poetry, a few minutes later I offered this thought to Isabel. She laughed and leaned over and kissed me and I wished that Teresa could see us, dark fields sliding by. Isabel removed the silver sticks from her hair and leaned her head against my shoulder and drifted off while I flipped through the Tolstoy for a half-remembered passage about a train, but couldn’t find it. It didn’t matter; every sentence, regardless of its subject, became mimetic of the action of the train, and the train mimetic of the sentence, and I felt suddenly coeval with its syntax. Because the sentences of Tolstoy, or rather the sentences of Constance Garner’s translations of Tolstoy, were in perfect harmony with the motion of the Talgo, real time and the time and prose began to merge, and reading, instead of removing me from the world, intensified my experience of the present.
There’s a lot that’s typical here: the sentences extended at least one clause longer than you’d expect (dark fields sliding by); the loosely arranged relationship between plot and reflection; the eventual sublimity of the reflection. One of the key points to make about LtAS is that it’s very frequently a gorgeous piece of prose. Part of what makes Adam’s personal-branding neurosis work is that while he’s constantly naming his inadequacy he’s also constantly performing his adequacy with paragraphs like this.
It’s an elegant readerly effect: on the one hand, it’s much easier for most readers (I suspect) to feel connected to an Adam Gordon who’s as worried and disheartened as this one is. If this paragraph is followed by a paragraph in which Adam says ‘and Hey I’m Great and a Genius’ then the ethical appeal of the entire novel tends to collapse I think. The combination of performed brilliance and communicated inadequacy is part of what makes the novel sympathetic, but also part of what makes it perfectly American: what Lerner/Gordon is constantly performing is the inadequacy of brilliance, which I believe is something American culture finds extremely comforting and European culture maybe less so.
An a more textual level one might ask—what is this paragraph, and how do we value it, and what essential role does it play in this text, and (crucially) what explains the relative lack of paragraphs like this in most other fiction? From a Barthesian perspective it first it tells us something about Adam: Topeka, view of poetry, desire for Teresa’s Jealousy, Tolstoy thing, associative thought process. There’s all sorts of semes behind this, but you get the point. There’s some symbolic action—poetry as train, train as archaic (hidden dissonance here between the purposeful directness of the train and the sometimes-purposeful obscureness of poetry) and obviously assorted cultural coding.
What’s missing, though, are the two codes that seems to be at the fundament of the readerly experience as conceived by the modern publishing industry. The proairetics are inconsequential at best—a remark, a lean against a shoulder, a train ride continuing. And the hermeneutics are practically nonexistent—no question is asked here, no enigma either developed or introduced. If you’re reading this paragraph, in other words, you need to be someone who’s prepared to value cooing reflections on the similarity of reading Tolstoy to riding on a train through Spain.
My sense is that a large number of prose professionals would tell you that reader doesn’t exist anymore, or isn’t worth composing for, and that this paragraph needed to be cut in favor of another, one that better developed the relationship with Isabela instead of the relationship between Tolstoy and the train. Whether they’d be right or not is immaterial—whether this paragraph is good writing or not is probably also immaterial. The point is that it’s different from what we usually read, and it’s different from what we read because its different from what we publish—or is it the other way around?
It seems pretty straightforward to assert that the sensibility displayed by Lerner in the associative paragraph is more stereotypically poetic than prosaic—instead of telling us a story, he’s noting a flirtation of impressions, and doing so in a way that moves according to a logic that’s more lateral than vertical, or something. [A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.]
An alternative contention would be that Lerner’s just ripping off proust/kundera, which this paragraph seems like a pretty obvious rip from the former and most of the others from at least one of the two. The funny thing here is that neither of those guys are really first person narrators in the same way that Gordon is. Kundera’s too into his essayistic thing and Proust despite saying I a lot isn’t really a character so much as he’s a cameraman, or a probe inserted into a certain set of social situations in order to report. This particular subset of paragraphs isn’t as well represented by the above but on this analysis the interesting thing about LtAS is how Lerner’s managed to take what’s basically an essayistic (or poetic) perspective existent in other fiction and bring it into a pretty immediate first-person narrator in Gordon. It’s a damn good trick.
But then the relevant question is whether we’d publish Proust or Kundera in 2013, and the answer isn’t a clear yes. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s heavy pressure on most working (and becoming) modern prose writers to write in a way that is profoundly different from LtAS. The advantage Lerner has, maybe, is that because he is/was a poet before and in addition to being a prose writer, he’s more secure both internally (it’s okay for me to use my poetic/lateral sensibility in a work of prose fiction) and externally (it’s okay for him to use his poetic/lateral sensibility in a work of prose fiction) in writing this way than its possible for most of us to be. What I’m really saying is that Lerner’s ability to (1) write and (2) publish not just this sentence but this entire book may in some way depend on the fact that he came to the game from outside, and came to it as someone with authority of his own rather than just ‘I might be a good writer.’
2) It’s funny
If you read the back jacket of LtAS, you’ll notice that the lines they’ve chosen to excerpt from the reviews (LtAS was extremely well-reviewed) are generally the lines that praise the book for being so gosh-darn funny. This is something that’s always bothered me a bit in literary circles: there’s very few great books that aren’t referred to intermittently as being ‘and so funny,’ as though the known merit of the work were an afterthought and the presence of humor constituted the actual secret value of the text.
What’s funny in LtAS is a variant of the classic Malvolio funny: a gap has appeared between the world and someone’s conception of it. What makes Malvolio funny is his inappropriate behavior: believing that some are born great, he arrives in yellow cross-garters and achieves humiliation.
[There’s numerous examples of inappropriate behavior proceeding from inaccurate worldviews that aren’t funny; probably what makes Malvolio work is the whimsy of his inappropriateness. Had the pranksters written a note indicating that Olivia found it extremely attractive when her lovers committed genocide, and had Malvolio walked across the stage committing genocide, we would find this something other than funny. (Although weirdly it seems as though it may be funny to write the aforementioned sentence as a commentary on Malvolio, as though someone pretending to commit genocide is unfunny just as genocide itself is sort of the pinnacle of the unfunny, but someone writing about someone pretending to commit genocide instead of wearing yellow stockings as though those were equivalent may in fact be funny, as though humor in this case were just a question of packing enough implausibility between us and something truly awful that we could feel unthreatened by it.) The humor is in the essential harmlessness of yellow cross-garters to everyone except Malvolio. Another crucial element to the Malvolio humor is our conception of Malvolio as basically typical, basically indestructible: as with so many other comic characters our ability to laugh at him is contingent on our ability to believe that even the episode of the yellow cross garters won’t impact any actual human outcomes. It’s this rule that Shakespeare later breaks and by breaking renders Malvolio instead tragic. There isn’t too much structural difference, one might say, between Malvolio and Macbeth, each of whom get silly notes proscribing glory: it’s just that one has stakes attached and the other at least at first seems not to.]
Anyways the humor of LtAS while relying on the Malvolio effect is in some sense an inversion. Whereas Malvolio suffers from an inflated sense of self and therefore behaves inappropriately, Adam Gordon suffers from a deflated sense of self (and an extremely acute awareness of appropriate behavior). His character is largely the discourse of appropriateness lengthily retained, of the attempt to convince everyone around him that he is what he fears himself not to be. This is funny! And like the Malvolio thing it benefits from the essential consequencelessness of the environment. Because Adam Gordon is in some sense fictional and because we know Ben Lerner survived to write a [really great! And funny!] novel, we aren’t too worried about Adam. We don’t feel that he’ll harm himself or much of anyone else.
One thing that LtAS does well, then, is to keep the stakes low. Obviously Adam’s performed brilliance helps with that: if a third-person narrator was telling us all about this guy and his pills and his crappy Lorca translations (I still can’t figure out if the excerpts of Adam’s poetry are supposed to be any good or not) we’d feel some serious pain and pity, but because we hear about everything from (a plainly intact and wittily alert) Adam himself, we know that nothing too bad is going to happen. We’re not going to turn the page and find that he overdosed, though there’s a point where structurally it could be done.
In the end what happens in LtAS seems to be that Adam gains like one quanta of self-confidence. There’s a series of poetry readings which lead to him eventually gaining recognition. Overall though this seems like low-stakes high-value type fiction: good circumstances for humor. I’d like to have some sort of qualitative remark about that, but I don’t really. It fits a first-novel pattern from a few decades ago—good writing but not very plotted. That isn’t a conclusion, but this is: I don’t know how to value that, but I liked this book a lot.