Perhaps I should be concerned by how agreeable I found Adam Gordon, the protagonist in Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving The Atocha Station.
I’m not sure what in particular drew me to him. It may have been his proclivity for cannabis with his morning coffee; or maybe it was his wallowing self-doubt and relentless self-pity; possibly his penchant for a beer or three at lunchtime; or maybe my fondness for Adam Gordon was the result of his constant spew of self-serving lies and ever-ready justification for each of them. I fear it could be all of the above.
Soon after I finished the book, with my affection for Adam positively cemented, I listened to BBC Radio 4’s discussion of the novel. Lerner himself was on the show and I was surprised to hear him bombarded by statements, designed as questions, from audience members compelled to express their emphatic condemnation of Adam Gordon. His behaviour – which I’d reasoned as symptoms of the perfectly understandable, and in fact sensible condition: ‘disenfranchised young man’ – was being cast as depravity.
Lerner was not nearly as surprised by this characterisation as I. “By this point, I’m very familiar with how off-putting Adam is to a lot of different people,” he explained. This was partly his intention. “A lot of my favourite literature consists of figures of great negativity. The tradition of the anti-hero, where a book will say the worst things about a character, often I find more absorbing. Literature seems like one space to grapple with ugly feelings and that can be very vitalising.”
Aware of, and perfectly content with, Adam’s polarising effect on people, Lerner now, nearly a decade on, seems more interested in why his protagonist is so catalysing. “I think it has to do, in part, with that’s he’s very privileged and very eloquent,” he theorises. Being a creature of privilege (and I would of course argue eloquence) myself, I must admit to overlooking quite how fortunate Adam Gordon is. His New England Ivy-League education, scholarship to study-abroad, and freedom to Mummy and Daddy’s credit card is, while not exactly my own, a world with which I am extremely familiar; likely contributing to my attachment to Adam. “And yet,” Lerner goes on, “he dissolves into anxiety and dissimulation,” hereby seemingly squandering all the opportunity he’s been afforded. The less said (for now) about my familiarity with this sort of behaviour, the better.
Adam’s cluelessness as to what to do with his privilege is part of what Leaving the Atocha Station is about. “I think it’s interesting to see him confront the disconnect between his education and intellect, and his knowledge of how to live,” Lerner continued. “I think it’s a pretty typical story about people at that age. When you have a lot of language and stories you tell about yourself, but don’t yet know how to inhabit them in the world.” Though I cannot claim to having picked up on this theme when first reading, I have long been of the belief that the separation between what we perceive as intelligence, and what is in fact applicable knowledge is widening, especially among ‘young’ people; for the age at which we need employ any practical competence steadily increases. ‘Education’ has come to mean such a defined thing, when, at risk of sounding cliché, everything is an education. Those select few, such as Adam Gordon, who attend the most celebrated global institutions of higher education, tend to leave with an impressive breadth of knowledge and many of the tools to go on and be successful, but may still need to acquire the “knowledge of how to live,” that Lerner alludes to.
I realise that if you have not yet read the book, I have made it sound much heavier going than it is (and I have not even mentioned the Al Qaeda attack). Leaving the Atocha Station is in fact incredibly amusing. In just 170-odd pages, Lerner successfully touches upon numerous topics of worldly significance – language barriers, emotional barriers, pathological lying, drug abuse, anxiety, doubt, poetry, art, privilege, education, the war on terror and American exceptionalism – and yet each page is loaded with wit; each page typically armed with quips and brilliant sentences which disperse any over-the-top severity beginning to settle.
Love him or hate him, Adam Gordon is an astute chap and I cannot help but support him. I stand by my admiration as well, because the quality of Leaving The Atocha Station proves, in my eyes, that his behaviour never approached the realm of depravity. He was just a clever kid who needed to grow up. Evidently, he did.