How often do you get to read a manuscript review?
Two pieces, one a discussion of a novel published today by
BEN LERNER and the other a review of a memoir by FRED MOODY
still in manuscript (yes, that’s right).
Leaving the Atocha Station
Coffee House Press, August 2011. 186 pp.
All criticism is a form of autobiography.
I’ve never met the poet Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, as we’re interested in each other’s work. In my case, “interested” is a bit of an understatement. I’m obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the following generation, my younger self, my aesthetic son. Both of us went to Brown; have traveled in Spain/speak Spanish poorly; are Jewish — i.e., have/had Jewish parents. I wasn’t born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and “critics.” Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and passive fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the “incommensurability of language and experience” and our detachment from our own emotions.
I admire Ben’s poetry, but I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clef references to the author’s childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of Ashbery’s poetry (a collection which includes the poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”), his poet-friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, his psychologist-parents (his mother is the well known feminist writer Harriet Lerner); I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as he if were Ben. Ben won’t mind! — and what difference does it make?
The book — as what significant book is not? — is born of significant despair; Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are “so many suicide notes.” If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop. You and me both, pal. The question I want to ask, in this prologue and the book that follows: twenty-three years older than he is, am I in exactly the same stew?