If Hemingway Were a Poet

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In poet Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow expat Adam Gordon as he travels Spain managing the boundaries between art and life.

Ben Lerner, renowned for his poetry, finalist for the National Book Award, and the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie, comes at us with his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, the story of a poet who travels abroad to complete an artistic project, consumes a constant barrage of stimulants, meets new people, and becomes both more and more obsessed with the evolution of his artistic being and by the possibility that the whole of art is meaningless, the search for artistic truth a relentlessly moot point.

Maybe if I remained I would pursue the project described so many months ago in my application, composing a long research-driven poem, whatever that might mean, about the literary response to the Civil War, exploring what such a moment could teach us about Literature now. My Spanish would rapidly improve; I would not read Ashbery or Garnett or anything else in English, but hurl myself headlong at the Spanish canon; I would become the poet I pretended to be and realize my project.

In the end, Adam Gordon, Lerner’s poet living on a fellowship in Spain, grows increasing disheartened with both himself and his poetry, diving somewhat hopelessly into the dissection of art at the point of failure. Leaving the Atocha Station, like our protagonist Gordon, is perpetually interested in this connection of art and life, either in intersections as simple as what books the characters are reading while exploring new cities, or in the more philosophical bent of questioning what it is that poetry does, what makes art good or worth what it has gained, or if poetry even matters in our increasingly chaotic world, one where apathy seems the new standard:

He asked me about my poems and I took four notebooks out of my bag and gave them to him and explained they were just from this week and I wondered which were his favorite poems and if there were any they wanted to include in the pamphlet. He seemed genuinely excited, and I thought to myself that that was both touching and somehow sad, but felt neither touched nor saddened.

This is the same indifference rampant in other sects of our modern literary existence, perhaps most infamously in the novels of Tao Lin, where, like in Leaving the Atocha Station, the world wide something meets with the poetic, and the result is a bevy of characters concerned more with the right mix of consumption (food, drugs, products) and less with art for art’s sake. Lerner’s protagonist goes abroad, but he also resides in a state of observation that is robotic and withdrawn, state-less, even as he is moments away from the stir of actual, literal history.

And regardless of the drugs that Gordon ingests and simultaneously justifies by way of art, the inclusion of pseudo-love instant messaging dialogues, and a myriad of other modern tactics, it is impossible to ignore the all too many connections to another literary time, that of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: Lerner’s characters soak in Spain’s sun, relationships bloom and die, art is at stake, and the drive of prose is often focused on outdoor cafés and descriptions of food or alcohol. This is not to say that Leaving the Atocha Station is a wholesale bleeding of Hemingway’s genius or a poet wrongly digging at the roots of one of our most accomplished American novelists, but even with the addition of terrorist explosions, Lerner is still mostly writing in readily identifiable Hemingway-territory, if Hemingway were a poet authoring his first novel: “Isabel came to me and pulled my head against her and said something to comfort me that included the word ‘poet.’ Rufina was rubbing my leg. I saw myself as if from the yard, amazed.”

And this is where Hemingway and Lerner really differ, in the poetry of their phrasing. The Sun Also Rises, along with the body of Hemingway’s work, is rightly lauded for its use of simple yet beautiful phrases, while Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station revels in overly long phrases, sentences with such length that they often breed tangles. More than anything, these lengthened lines set Leaving the Atocha Station apart from the expat grace of Hemingway, making Lerner’s first novel an interesting yet not entirely fulfilling read. Lerner covers territory by train that has been covered by other tracks and writes at times like a modern or post-modern coat atop a classic body, perhaps not evoking enough to call this debut novel more than an entertaining and sustainable read, showing Hemingway as a poet to rival our contemporaries.

J. A. Tyler is the author of The Zoo, a Going (Dzanc Books). His work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Diagram, Denver Quarterly, New York Tyrant, Fairy Tale Review, and others. Find him online at jasonalantyler.com or on Twitter at @J_A_Tyler. More from this author →