Leaving the Atocha Station

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Adam Gordon is a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self and his relationship to art. What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader's projections? Instead of following the dictates of his fellowship, Adam’s “research” becomes a meditation on the possibility of the genuine in the arts and beyond: are ...

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Adam Gordon is a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self and his relationship to art. What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader's projections? Instead of following the dictates of his fellowship, Adam’s “research” becomes a meditation on the possibility of the genuine in the arts and beyond: are his relationships with the people he meets in Spain as fraudulent as he fears his poems are? A witness to the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath, does he participate in historic events or merely watch them pass him by?

In prose that veers between the comic and tragic, the self-contemptuous and the inspired, Leaving the Atocha Station is a portrait of the artist as a young man in an age of Google searches, pharmaceuticals, and spectacle.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979, Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel.

2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Runner-up
2012 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize Runner-up

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In Madrid on a fellowship, a young American poet examines his ambivalence about authenticity in this noteworthy debut novel by acclaimed poet Lerner, whose poetry collection, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. Adam, the hilariously unreliable narrator who describes himself as a "violent, bipolar, compulsive liar," is both repellent and reassuringly familiar, contradictorily wishing to connect and to alienate. His social interactions are often lost in translation: "They wanted the input of a young American poet writing and reading abroad and wasn't that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent." Lerner has fun with the interplay between the unreliable spoken word and subtleties in speech and body language, capturing the struggle of a young artist unsure of the meaning or value of his art. Even major events, like the 2004 Madrid train bombings, are simply moments that Adam is both witness to and separate from; entering into a conversation around the wreckage, he argues: "Poetry makes nothing happen." Lerner succeeds in drawing out the problems inherent in art, expectation, and communication. And his Adam is a complex creation, relatable but unreliable, humorous but sad, at once a young man adrift and an artist intensely invested in his surroundings. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

Finalist for the 2013 James Tait Black Prize in fiction

Runner-Up for the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Winner of The 2012 Believer Book Award

Finalist for the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction)

Finalist for The New York Public Library's 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award

Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Fiction of 2011
The New Yorker’s Best of the Year in Culture 2011
Newsweek/Daily Beast’s Best of 2011
The Boston Globe’s Best of 2011
The Guardian’s Best Books of 2011
Shelf Unbound’s Top Ten of 2011
New Stateman’s Best Books of 2011

The Huffington Post "Yet Another Year-End List"
The Guardian, "book I wish I'd published" by Canongate publisher Jamie Byng
Work in Progress, "FSG's Favorite Book of 2012"

“[A] subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel. . . . [Leaving the Atocha Station] has a beguiling mixture of lightness and weight. There are wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page. Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and “conflict,” fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life. . . .”—James Wood, The New Yorker

"Ben Lerner's remarkable first novel . . . is a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice. It is also a revealing study of what it's like to be a young American abroad . . . Lerner is concerned with ineffability, but Adam Gordon (and the author) fight back with more than words . . . The ultimate product of Gordon's success is the novel itself." -Gary Sernovitz, The New York Times Book Review

“One of the funniest (and truest) novels I know of by a writer of his generation. . . . [A] dazzlingly good novel.”—Lorin Stein, The New York Review of Books

“Flip, hip, smart, and very funny . . . [R]eading it was unlike any other novel-reading experience I’ve had for a long time.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross”

“[Leaving the Atocha Station is] hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment. . . . —Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian’s Books of the Year 2011

"[A] remarkable first novel . . . intensely and unusually brilliant."—The Guardian

"Utterly charming. Lerner’s self-hating, lying, overmedicated, brilliant fool of a hero is a memorable character, and his voice speaks with a music distinctly and hilariously all his own.” —Paul Auster

Leaving the Atocha Station is a marvelous novel, not least because of the magical way that it reverses the postmodernist spell, transmuting a fraudulent figure into a fully dimensional and compelling character.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Lerner’s prose, at once precise and swerving, propels the book in lieu of a plot and creates an experience of something [main character Adam] Gordon criticizes more heavily plotted books of failing to capture: “the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine.”—The Daily Beast

“[A] noteworthy debut . . . . Lerner has fun with the interplay between the unreliable spoken word and subtleties in speech and body language, capturing the struggle of a young artist unsure of the meaning or value of his art. . . . Lerner succeeds in drawing out the problems inherent in art, expectation, and communication.”—Publishers Weekly

“Ben Lerner’s first novel, coming on the heels of three outstanding poetry collections, is a darkly hilarious examination of just how self-conscious, miserable, and absurd one man can be. . . . Lerner’s writing [is] beautiful, funny, and revelatory.”—Deb Olin Unferth, Bookforum

“. . . Leaving the Atocha Station is as much an apologia for poetry as it is a novel. Lerner’s ability to accomplish both projects at once is a marvel. His sense of narrative forward motion and his penchant for rumination are kept in constant competition with one another, so that neither is allowed to keep the upper hand for long. Leaving the Atocha Station is a novel for poets, liars, and equivocators—that is, for aspects of us all. It is also a poem, dedicated to the gulf between self and self–ego and alter ego, “true me” and “false me,” present self and outgrown past.”—Open Letters Monthly

“The first novel from Ben Lerner, a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, explores with humor and depth what everyone assumes is OK to overlook. . . . Ben Lerner’s phrases meander, unconcerned tourists, taking exotic day trips to surprising clauses before returning to their familiar hostels of subject and predicate. . . . [A]n honest, exciting account of what it’s like to be a fairly regular guy in fairly regular circumstances . . . [and] somehow it’s more incredible, and more modern a dilemma, than the explosives.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Leaving the Atocha Station is the kind of book that feels lived rather than composed—a post-MFA The Catcher in the Rye for professional adolescents. When I finished reading the novel, I wanted to know what Gordon was up to and had to resist the urge to look for him on Facebook and Twitter, which is a shame. I could have given his résumé a boost with an endorsement on LinkedIn."—San Diego CityBeat

“I admire Ben’s poetry, but I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben Lerner’s novel . . . ‘chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling. . .’ [A] significant book.”—David Shields, Los Angeles Review of Books

“In his adroitly interiorized first novel . . . Lerner makes this tale of a nervous young artist abroad profoundly evocative by using his protagonist’s difficulties with Spanish, fear of creativity, and mental instability to cleverly, seductively, and hilariously investigate the nature of language and storytelling, veracity and fraud. As Adam’s private fears are dwarfed by terrorist train attacks, Lerner casts light on how we must constantly rework the narrative of our lives to survive and flourish.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Like Lerner’s debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, this is an extremely funny book, the narrator’s neuroses providing most of the laughs."–The Guardian

"Leaving the Atocha Station is, among other things, a character-driven ‘page-turner’ and a concisely definitive study of the “actual” versus the ‘virtual’ as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience. It’s funny and affecting and as meticulous and “knowing” in its execution of itself, I feel, as Ben’s poetry collections are.”—Tao Lin, The Believer

“Lerner, himself an Ivy League poet and National Book Award finalist who once spent time in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship, wrestles well with absence as an event. . . . The combination of tension and languor, grounded by sensual details, recalls Javier Marías.”—Time Out New York

“[Leaving the Atocha Station is remarkable for its ability to be simultaneously warm, ruminative, heart-breaking, and funny.”—Shelf Unbound

“Perhaps it’s because there’s so much skepticism surrounding the novel-by-poet that, when it’s successful, it’s such a cause for celebration. Some prime examples of monumental novels by poets and about poets (but not just for poets) are Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Now, let us celebrate another of their rank: Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.”—The Jewish Daily Forward

"An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life." —John Ashbery

“Acclaimed poet Ben Lerner’s first novel is a fascinating and often brilliant investigation of the distance (or the communication) between experience and art. . . . Rendering its subject from just about every angle, Leaving the Atocha Station becomes something close to highly self-aware, to something poetic.” —Zyzzyva

“Last night I started Ben Lerner’s novel “Leaving the Atocha Station.’’ By page three it was clear I was either staying up all night or putting the novel away until the weekend. I’m still angry with myself for having slept.” —Stacy Schiff

"Impenetrable Screen is at times quite poignant, and Atocha Station is canny and wickedly funny throughout. . . . [T]hese works too argue for themselves as achievements, talismanic keys attaining some degree of access to 'life’s white machine' and 'desire’s buzz.'” Full Stop, "Narcissus and Ego: Poets Try the Novel"

"The writing -fluid, sharp, and fast- pulls you along, rarely stumbling. Lerner understands human interaction with unusual clarity and for the egotistical Adam, every conversation is a sparring match. . .[T]he effect is striking and, unexpectedly comforting."-Iberosphere

"Linguistically, Leaving the Atocha Station is one of the most remarkable books I have read this year. Lerner is a poet, but this isn't a "poetic novel", by which I mean the kind of work where mellifluous description acts as a kind of literary toupee. Lerner's poetry manifests itself in elegantly stilted grammar, in contradiction and self-cancellation, is painfully self-aware self-mirroring and especially in misunderstanding ... The camber of Adam's thoughts is conveyed with astonishing grace."—The Scotsman

"I did love this debut novel by a young poet . . . which takes place at the time of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings and channels W.G. Sebald in [a] way that's far more interesting, for my money, than another Sebaldian homage published the same year." —Publishers Weekly

"I was both amused and appalled by the anti-hero of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station"—The Guardian

"In his first novel,Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner makes a kind of refined comedy out of his grad student narrator's gnawing sense of his own inauthenticity."—The New Statesman

"The sharpest and funniest novel I read this year."—The Daily Mail, chosen by Craig Brown

"I really liked Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. . . .It is incredibly smart. It's terrifying how smart this author is."—Miami Herald, "What are you reading now?" with Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins

"The prose is mesmerizing...a fairly astonishing large achievement of poetic voice and diction."—Circular Breathing

"[An] impressively verisimilar account of ennui and alienation in...our post-9/11 world."—Bookriot, "Read This Then That"

"Leaving the Atocha Station gets to the heart of this fact of our existence. It captures the complex relationship we have with art, with faith, with love, and with life, and it does so with wit, honesty and grace."—The Huffington Post

"Leaving the Atocha Station, an American-abroad novel by the poet Ben Lerner, reaches 'for what cannot be disclosed or confessed in narrative."—The New York Times, mention in "The Wayward Essay"

"The two achievements that push Leaving the Atocha Station into must-read territory are its antihero narrator and the almost kinetic nature of its prose...[T]he author fills the pages with an electric, commanding prose that turns into everything the reader needs."—Verbicide

"'In my continued, mostly futile, campaign to offer various children, nieces and nephews an alternative to vampires and wizards,' he wrote, 'I'll be giving...Ben Lerner's smart, ruminating novel, Leaving the Atocha Station...'"—The New York Times, "Inside the List"

"That monster of overprivilege and overeducation ends up being genuinely sympathetic, and that a book that has serious questions to ask about the place of art in our virtually anesthetized world is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, are testaments to Ben Lerner's dazzling prose, which switches effortlessly from deadpan to ironic to salty to tragic and back again. "—The Millions, "A Year in Reading: Paul Murray"

"I loved Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. It fits into the category I like to call 'the perfect little novel.'"—Buzzfeed, "The Best Books We Read in 2012"

"Lerner is a multi-form talent who crosses genres, modes, and media to represent a leading edge of contemporary writing."—Contemporary Literature, interview with Lerner

“In Leaving the Atocha Station the light is at first humor, of which self-deprecation and compulsive lying are the materials. . . . Lerner suggests that hope lies in the excision of self-consciousness, a less partial view of oneself.”—Los Angeles Review of Books,“Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald"

"Indeed, we've often found ourselves at a loss to explain why this book is so wonderful . . . Shields gets it: the book 'chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling.'"—Flavorwire,“Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald"

"Leaving the Atocha Station . . . uses theory's vocabulary to describe the experience of courtship. . . . Here is the beauty of flirtation rescued from cliche by he churning of mind trained to analyze language at Brown."—Salon, "Whispering sweet post-structuralist nothings"

Library Journal
Poets turn to writing fiction for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they're curious about the possibilities of the genre and think that their poetic skills are transferable to the medium of prose. Lerner (The Lichtenberg Figures) is the latest poet to attempt this conversion, and his debut novel follows protagonist Adam Gordon, a young American poet who wins a yearlong fellowship to Madrid. Adam spends much of his residency suffering from the nagging suspicion that he is unable to have authentic experiences. Mediated by a steady diet of antidepressants, drugs, and alcohol, his life in Spain is portrayed as a series of shifting surfaces that lack any possibility of meaningful social or political engagement. VERDICT While well written and full of captivating ideas, this novel might have been better as a collection of essays. At its worst, it simply revives the tired stereotype of the self-absorbed poet as the lead character in his own reverse bildungsroman—one in which the only character who matters is the very person whose development the reader cannot bring himself to care about.—Chris Pusateri, Jefferson Cty. P.L., CO
The Barnes & Noble Review

Adam Gordon, the young poet-narrator of Ben Lerner's 2011 fiction debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, was unsure of whether he was artist or fraud. He held himself at a postmodern remove from his life, as though art were the way to resist it. The unnamed protagonist of Lerner's 10:04, by contrast, no longer, really, has such an option: for him, life and art are hopelessly muddled, personally, economically, and politically too. Like he and Lerner, whom he dogs like a reflection in a darkened glass, they are the same — if just a little different.

The novel is set between hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and the Brooklyn-based writer and teacher is both incubating a second novel and attempting to get his best friend pregnant through fertility treatments paid for with his advance ("faking the past to fund the future," as one character cleverly puts it, though the setup is redolent of romantic comedy). Around him hovers a sense of foreboding, of living in the end times, or at least the beginning of the end, one that extends even to the cold, digital non-word of the title, over a photograph of storm-darkened Manhattan. It is, throughout, "unseasonably warm."

Now thirty-three, the narrator has aged into financial success as an author — his first novel, like Lerner's, released to surprise acclaim — and that familiar liberal- bourgeois political conscience that both recognizes and resists its bourgeois-ness. He participates in and loathes "Brooklyn's boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism"; he gorges on baby octopus and Sancerre; he works a shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op and tutors a son of undocumented immigrants. Beneath it all though is an increasingly urgent feeling that his art can, or should be, some form of affirmation—an inkling of the political utopia hidden in its imperfections. Imagining a conversation with his potential child, the narrator encapsulates the distance traveled from Atocha to here:

"How are you going to pay for all this?" she asked me.
"On the strength of my New Yorker story. You're over-focused on the money, Rose." It was my maternal grandmother's name.
"Is that why you've shifted from a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market to the fantasy of coeval readership?"
"Art has to offer something other than stylized despair."
"Are you projecting your artistic ambition onto me?"
"So what if I am?"
"Why didn't mom just adopt?"
From Adam's arch proclamations on art's rarefied position vis-...-vis current events (its "stylized despair"), Lerner has turned his attention to the social—how fiction, in particular, can contribute to shared meaning across race, class, genre, and time. His narrator has been diagnosed with a heart condition — there's a shy double entendre there, if you'd like. He discusses his refusal to describe anyone's face, and one gets the sense that this is a democratic as well as an aesthetic gesture — his friend Alex's father, he eventually lets slip, is from Martinique, but there's no suggestion of race. "Whatever it is," Walt Whitman writes in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, "it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not. . . . I am with you, and know how it is."

One has to admire the scope of Lerner's ambition. To write a novel that's constantly alert to its own written-ness, removed from its narrative by an awareness of itself as art but also obvious in its entanglements with the real, is feat enough without at the same time reaching for a Whitmanesque democracy of souls. He doesn't always succeed — this very awareness can produce scenes that feel ponderous and bloated, and the way Lerner insists on writing "lacrimal events" instead of "tears" feels like a form of hedging, maintaining an ironic distance from the novel itself. Scientific and medical jargon proliferate rather blithely, taking the reader further into abstraction: there are "multifingered extremities" instead of "hands," "passerines" instead of "pigeons," and "an Andean chenopod" instead of "quinoa." One gets the feeling that Lerner is flexing a bit at these times, throwing his intellect about merely because he can.

The novel's prose is drawn from a small flotilla of registers, all of which — aside from such linguistic extravagance — it does absorb with ease. More than plot, the book's five sections are comprised of discrete scenes and borrowed text: the short story, which Lerner did publish in the New Yorker; a university talk; an account of a writing residency in Marfa, Texas, that has more in common with Lerner's first novel than it does with this one and incorporates a long, not very interesting poem; elements of an essay Lerner wrote for Harper's on the Salvage Art Institute; an illustrated children's book by the narrator's tutee. Atocha itself is referred to, directly and indirectly, throughout.

If fiction, as William H. Gass once wrote, is in the business of creating a reality rather than reflecting one, the reality Lerner creates takes the form of collage, a collection of moments that, in combination and repetition, are recuperated by narrative almost accidentally. It's like the phenomenon of pareidolia, he suggests: the brain's tendency to make meaning even among randomness, seeing faces in the clouds. At one point, Alex and the protagonist view Christian Marclay's The Clock — a twenty-four-hour video montage composed of found footage involving time, by means of which "fictional time [is] synchronized with nonfictional duration." In its assemblage of "found" text, 10:04 too is written, as it were, in "real time," both fiercely contemporary — global warming, iPhones, and Wikipedia articles as more than just set-dressing — and a form of time travel, fusing the now of the reading onto the now of the text. (In fact, the novel is titled after the moment at which lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future, sending Marty McFly home to 1985 and saving the future by allowing a certain past not to have happened.)

10:04 often gives the sense of being composed as one reads it, beginning with an opening scene that makes note of the fact that it is to be the opener, and ending by choosing its own cover art. Tenses coexist — memories of the recent past, including events that never occurred, projections of possible futures, and memories of those projections. Time is compressed within strings of dialog, within artwork, in the interposition of scenes like series of moving tableaux. Fiction is like that lightning strike, maybe — a disaster that collapses time, by means of which possibility is released.

Everywhere, Lerner finds revelations yielded by this kind of sudden collapse: At one point, "the author" from the New Yorker story pauses in front of a gaslight in Brooklyn, and in his thoughts you hear more than an echo of Whitman on board that city's ferry, some 112 years before:
It was as if the little flame in the gas lamp he paused before were burning at once in the present and in various pasts, in 2012 but also in 1912 or 1883, as if it were one flame flickering simultaneously in each of those times, connecting them. He felt that anyone who had ever paused before the lamp as he was pausing was briefly coeval with him, that they were all watching the same turbulent point in their respective present tenses.
There are moments when Lerner addresses a "you," and this is Whitman's "you" more than a specific dedicatee or reader. Which is to say that it's a "you" that's also an "I," a self that is multiples. The "you" is the voice of the self thrown into the future, the self imagined looking forward from the past, the "collective person who didn't yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed." The goal is to "be on both sides of the poem, / shuttling between you and I," the simultaneous filling and emptying of self.

If art is anything it is this flickering, this "current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away" — between moment and narrative, between real and unreal, between the present and a host of alternate times, between particular and structural, actual and potential, you and I. That it can be all of that and all at once is the grand democratic dream: that, like Lerner's novel, it can absorb and transform just about anything at all. In this it is a form of hope — what Whitman called "the certainty of others," that they are there, and know how it is. And perhaps that is salvation enough.

Reviewer: Jenny Hendrix

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566892742
  • Publisher: Coffee House Press
  • Publication date: 8/23/2011
  • Pages: 186
  • Sales rank: 102,196
  • Product dimensions: 8.78 (w) x 6.08 (h) x 0.48 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979, Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel.
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Read an Excerpt

An excerpt from Leaving the Atocha Station

The first phase of my research involved waking up weekday mornings in a barely furnished attic apartment on Calle de las Huertas, the first apartment I’d looked at after arriving in Madrid, or letting myself be woken by the noise from La Plaza Santa Ana, failing to assimilate that noise fully into my dream, then putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee. When the coffee was ready I opened the skylight, which was just big enough for me to crawl through if I stood on the bed, and drank my espresso and smoked on the roof overlooking the plaza where tourists were congregating with their guide books on the metal tables and the accordion player was plying his trade. In the distance: the palace and long lines of cloud. Next my project required dropping myself back through the skylight, shitting, taking a shower, my white pills, and getting dressed. Then I took my bag, which contained a bilingual edition of Lorca’s Collected Poems, my two notebooks, pocket dictionary, John Ashbery’s Selected Poems, drugs, and left for the Prado.

From my apartment I walked down Huertas, nodding to the street cleaners in their lime green jumpsuits, crossed El Paseo del Prado, entered the museum, which was only a couple of Euros with my international scholar ID, and proceeded directly to room 58, where I positioned myself in front of Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I was usually standing before the painting within forty-five minutes of waking and so the hash and caffeine and sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium. Mary is forever falling to the ground in a faint; the blues of her robes are unsurpassed in Flemish painting. Her posture is almost an exact echo of Jesus’; Nicodemus and a helper hold his apparently weightless body in the air. C.1435; 220 x 262 cm. Oil on oak paneling.

A turning point in my project: I arrived one morning at the Van der Weyden to find someone had taken my place. He was standing exactly where I normally stood and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent and if he was now standing before the painting hoping to see whatever it was I must have been seeing. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but I was too accustomed to the dimensions and blues of the Descent to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?

I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.

Once the man calmed down, which took at least two minutes, he wiped his face and blew his nose with a handkerchief he then returned to his pocket. On entering room 57 which was empty except for a lanky and sleepy guard, the man walked immediately up to the small votive image of Christ attributed to San Leocadio; green tunic, red robes, expression of deep sorrow. I pretended to take in other paintings while looking sidelong at the man as he considered the little canvas. For a long minute he was quiet and then he again released a sob. This startled the guard into alertness and our eyes met, mine saying that this had happened in the other gallery, the guard’s communicating his struggle to determine whether the man was crazy—perhaps the kind of man who would damage a painting, spit on it or tear it from the wall or scratch it with a key—or if the man was having a profound experience of art. Out came the handkerchief and the man walked calmly into 56, stood before The Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit. Now there were three guards in the room, the lanky guard from 57, the short woman who always guarded 56, and an older guard with improbably long silver hair who must have heard the most recent outburst from the hall. The one or two other museum-goers in 56 were deep in their audio tours and oblivious to the scene unfolding before the Bosch.

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2014

    Uninspired writer's journey to self fulfillment.

    Lots of self indulgent characters in search of more self indulgence. I hoped someone would see reality, but no
    one did.

    Not worth the effort!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2014


    A painfully self conscious attempt to turn a poetic phrase on every page, the book is a tedious slog through pseudo-intellectual narcisism. A perfect reflection of its era.

    The critics who called this book "funny" need to find other work.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2014

    Stupid and frustrating

    I hated the very shallow and immature main character, but I kept reading hoping something would improve. It didn't.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 16, 2012



    1 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2014

    This is funny?

    Depressive and hope it wasn't autobio. Buska

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews

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