TOJItW Book Club: Leaving the Atocha Station

May 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m going to try something new this week, a recommendation instead of an idea or an example. Every couple months, I’ll give a quick review of a work that exemplifies the tone of important joking I’m trying to write about here.

First up is Ben Lerner’s incredibly beautiful, intelligent, and hilarious Leaving the Atocha Station from Coffee House Press. It’s been reviewed and awarded all over during the past year, so I’m recommending it  not because I’m afraid it isn’t getting it’s due, but because taking examples from it will help me elucidate my points more elegantly than my iphone essay prose is capable of: the novel is full of the sort of humor I’m interested in, drawing the reader deeper into a subject instead of flippantly dismissing it.

The deeper subject here is human connection; Adam, the narrator, is a young poet “studying” on a fellowship in Spain. But instead of writing or reading, he mostly gets high and worries that everyone can tell he’s a fraud; he’s worried that everyone can tell his poetry is empty, that there is no such thing as meaningful poetry anyway, and that everyone can tell he’s just using his poor Spanish as an excuse to seem profound and stay distant. Add in the terrorist attack on the Atocha Station from 2004, and the whole thing sounds very sober, but somehow there is humor on nearly every page. Best of all, it never feels extraneous or ingratiating, but continually draws the reader deeper into the story and the problems it explores.

Below, Adam has just been punched in the face for being too high and full of himself to notice he was cockily smiling through a story he should have been frowning at. The girl who told the story finds him to apologize for her punchy friend.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand what story you said before to me,” is probably what I said. “My Spanish is very bad, I get nervous.”

“Your Spanish is good,” she said. “How is your face?”

“My face is good,” I said, which made her laugh. She undid her hair and took the scarf and dipped it and wrung it out and used it to wipe the rest of the blood from my face and then dipped it and wrung it out. She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full. Her hair was long, maybe longer than the guard’s. Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish. She asked me if I knew a poem by Lorca, this time about something that involved several colors and required her to softly roll her r‘s, which I couldn’t do. She offered me a cigarette and we smoked and I looked at the water and was sober.

There’s plenty of fun like this throughout the book, as Adam invents whole self-serving stories out of the fractions of Spanish that he understands, a process he likens to our modern relationship with poetry.

I’m hoping to write most of the next month’s posts specifically about literature and humor, and how humor can be used as a tool to deepen the subtext of literature. I plan to use Leaving the Atocha Station for most of my textual examples because it does everything I want to talk about so elegantly.  But it’s so full of cathartic moments of complicated laughter–too many for me to attach specific points to–that I hope you’ll read it for your own enjoyment.

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