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Petersburg, was easily crushed by Nicholas I, the new tsar. The young man was thrown into a quandary. Adam—at once ideological and post-ideological, vaguely engaged and profoundly spectatorial, charming and loathsome—is a convincing representative of twenty-first-century American Homo literatus. Like Pechorin, Adam is sometimes emotionless but is also abruptly changeable—sometimes oddly histrionic, and at other moments oddly passive.

Before he can start anything, he is already measuring his failure and fraudulence. To combat this weakness, he has developed the arts of deception. I held this look steady once it had obtained, a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity. She described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now; or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger.

This gag about losing things in translation, a version of which recurs throughout the book, is funny, but it is not comically inert. Lerner, a poet in his early thirties who has written three books of verse, is interested in whether words truly belong to us. As the novel develops, Adam comes to exaggerate his weakness with Spanish in order to avoid revealing himself. He says about his relationship with his other girlfriend, Isabel: My Spanish was getting better, despite myself, and I experienced, with the force of revelation, an obvious realization: our relationship largely depended upon my never becoming fluent, on my having an excuse to speak in enigmatic fragments or koans.

I wondered, as we walked past the convents and gift shops, how long I could remain in Madrid without crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency would render me devoid of interest. Again, this is funny and wily, but beneath it runs the dread of nullity. Are we in fact constituted by our inauthenticities? But, if Adam stopped pretending that he was only pretending to be a poet, he would have to write some poems, and confront questions of talent and of vocation. Is poetry never about anything?

He is in Madrid when Al Qaeda bombs trains at the Atocha station, yet his detached attitude contrasts painfully with the engagement of his Spanish friends.

At one moment, Adam seems to offer a telling confession to the reader. He has always known himself to be a fraud, he says. If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.

It is a characteristic passage, both in its slipperiness and in its acuity. But this is a novel full of deception and self-deception. Is this a heartfelt admission of impotence, or just another stage in the greater inauthenticity?

The reader inevitably suspects that this is a confession that consumes itself, rendering the confessor not more knowable but less. There are wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page. Lerner plays a nice game at the expense of W. Sebald, for instance, by using grainy photographs with obscure or teasing captions. But it is one of the paradoxes of this cunning book that what might seem a skeptically postmodern comedy is also an earnestly old-fashioned seeker of the real—that other thing.

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Leaving the Atocha Station

Had steered clear due to the premise - story of precocious poet in Spain, written by a prize-winning poet who, er, spent time in Spain - but this is actually a very funny book. Savagely satirises exactly the sort of privilege and hubris I feared it would be full of. An american in Spain. Familiar title? And he is not very familiar with anyone - at least not with himself. Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben Lerner.


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