“My inability to grasp or be grasped by the poem in Spanish so resembled my inability to grasp or be grasped by the poem in English that I felt, in this respect, like a native speaker.” This is exactly the kind of self-deprecating conceit one might expect to find somewhere in one of Geoff Dyer’s better books. In fact, it appears near the start of Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s autobiographical novel about Adam Gordon, an extremely self-conscious young American poet living in Spain for a year on a fellowship grant.
Obsessed with issues of authenticity, Adam takes bundles of tranquilizers, smokes copious amounts of hash and consequently becomes aware of what a fake he and everyone else is. Psychologically removed from himself and others, the only feeling he can appreciate is the “profound experience of the absence of profundity”. He sees himself from every possible angle. Sentences are repeatedly opened with some variation of ‘I saw myself from the perspective of…’, an expression obviously intended as a way to explore issues of selfhood, but which rarely conveys more than Adam’s personal self-obsession. Forever interested in seeming disinterested, Adam qualifies twelve different sentences with ‘whatever that might mean’.
He comes clean about his own fraudulence, to be fair. “That I was a fraud had never been in question – who wasn’t?” But it isn’t quite clear that Lerner believes him. He does all he can to make Adam seem like a very cool young dude indeed. Ironically for a text about psychological distance, the author never puts enough space between himself and the narrator. More often than not, it seems as if he buys into all his posturing. The narrative comes to seem slight as a result, merely gesturing towards the literary. Readers will nevertheless take solace in the profound experience of the absence of profundity.