Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel

While the subtitle of this book announces itself as a novel, in terms of length, it more closely resembles a novella or short story, as it can be read in one sitting. But in terms of the depth of emotional involvement it manages to draw out, it reads more like a novel.

My Name Is Lucy Barton begins with the narrator Lucy recalling the time she spent nine weeks in a hospital room in New York City facing the Chrysler building. She had had an appendectomy but developed a fever. Although she was subjected to all kinds of tests, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her, so her husband asked Lucy’s mother to visit, which she immediately does. She has not seen her daughter in years. The story hinges on their relationship, bringing us back to Lucy’s childhood in a small town in Illinois, where her family suffered extreme poverty.

Suffered is the right verb here. Strout briefly lets us know what it was like for a child to be tormented at school by her classmates and teachers for being so poor. The family, which includes three children, actually lived in a unheated garage. The deprivations the children experience reminded me of Tilly Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Like Elena Ferrante, Strout shows how poverty can be stultifying and scaring. Lucy is not even allowed to cry. What saves her is that she is able to escape into books. Lucy says,

the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point.

We also learn that Lucy’s father was essentially destroyed by the trauma of his experience in WWII. He cannot forget the atrocities her committed on German soldiers. What Strout seems to be getting at is how the humanity of both the torturer and the victim is violated, with lasting results. Following the war, many suffering from such trauma received little or no help. The situation has not improved all that much, as we continue to hear of the PTSD of those who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fortunately for Lucy, she is bright and eventually wins a college scholarship. She leaves home, graduates, and marries a man who is completing his postdoctoral studies at the university. Because he is of German origin, her father wants nothing to do with him, thus creating a serious breach between Lucy and her family.

After Lucy and her husband settle in New York and have two daughters, the emotion picks up again. Lucy has two stories published and meets the writer Sarah Payne, who has been faulted by a male critic for being “compassionate.” Lucy goes to hear Payne speak on a panel at the New York Public Library and notices the man “sitting alone in the back row.” I do like Strout’s sense of humour, her ironic use of understatement. Before long, Lucy becomes a student in Payne’s writing class. It is essentially through writing and following Payne’s advice — not to protect anyone as she writes –that Lucy is able to construct a viable and whole self.

It seems too that Lucy’s mysterious illness was caused by her need to have her mother’s love affirmed. Of course, readers understand that Lucy’s mother loves her. She has after all taken a plane on her own for the very first time in her life in order to visit her sick daughter. Since Lucy’s mother has no money for a hotel, she actually sleeps in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room. But because her mother has been so hardened by poverty and what must have been a brutal marriage, not to mention her own impoverished upbringing, she cannot bring herself to tell her daughter she loves her.

It may very well be that Lucy’s mysterious ailment was a manifestation of her need for parental love. We learn that her doctor has taken an interest in her and comes to check in on her even on the weekends, when he doesn’t work. We are told that members of his family died in the camps during the war, yet this man is still able to express love and kindness — in a word, compassion. In a sense, he becomes the positive father figure Lucy lacked.

By the end of the novel, Lucy reflects on the pain she has caused her own children and adds,

I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is  mine, this is mine, this is mine.

What is unique, is that Strout writes, “we children.” This is no ordinary heart to heart. Strout is speaking directly from her wounded child to the reader’s. This is a beautiful and touching ending, a novel narrated with the simplicity and honesty of a child.

Photo © Leonard-Cendamo.



I Prefer Mexico

As much as I enjoyed my sojourn in Cuenca, Ecuador, there was one serious drawback: the altitude. Cuenca is located in the Andes, some 8,300 feet above sea level, so it is not unusual for visitors to experience altitude sickness. While I did not pass out or throw up, I did experience shortness of breath, lack of appetite and fatigue as well as some dizziness and mental confusion. Altitude sickness can also result in strange dreams and I must say, I had my share, many about feeling constricted. It’s interesting how one’s consciousness can express a body sensation in narrative terms; for example, a dream of being confined in a physical space. It’s a bit frightening, but the fear may be a prompt to move out of that space.

However, there can be a few benefits to living at a high altitude if it doesn’t affect you too adversely. For one thing, it’s a good way to lose weight. Because digestion is slowed, you feel full before finishing your meal. Consequently, you will not find many obese people at this altitude.

After a few weeks, I felt the symptoms subside. Unfortunately that didn’t last. I recently read that it can takes months, even years to adjust. Overall, I felt like I was being held down by an invisible weight, so it was a relief to fly north to Mexico — to the southern Pacific coast — and be back at sea level.

During winter months, the weather is almost perfect: sunny and hot. This year there has been some rain during the dry season, and this is blamed on El Nino.

From my terrace I could see the mesmerizing Pacific Ocean. Image result for condos tortugas puerto escondido In between, there is lush tropical vegetation and beautiful flowers such as bougainvillea and hibiscus  as well as numerous cacti.  Even the birds are exceptionally pretty — a few tiny hummingbirds, yellow finches, swallows and turtledoves, not to mention the grackles. The occasional iguana can also be spotted.

Although it sounds like bliss, soon after my arrival, I came down with a dreadful chest cold that I first blamed on the AC but later came to believe was caused by an allergy as the irritation persisted. Once that cleared up, I decided to see the local dentist and have some ancient fillings replaced. One had already fractured. But the cost of dental work is less than one third what it is at home and the work is good quality. My dentist spent an hour cleaning my teeth to the tune of 50 CDN.

The food in Mexico is also excellent. There are many affordable restaurants in my neighbourhood, the cost of which hardly makes it worth cooking, but there is also a large covered outdoor market and a huge supermarket, both of which are relatively inexpensive. The fresh fruits available are a wonder to behold and delicious to consume.

So despite the inevitable intrusions of reality, I much prefer the enchantment of Mexico and plan to return next winter.

Enchantment may be a cliché, but Mexico does have its magic. This is a country of extreme contrasts and often chaotic. It might even be described as a land of dreams and illusions. The beauty of Mexico is undeniable, but so are the dangers. Thankfully there are still some safe havens.



Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels

One would expect Penelope Fitzgerald to have enjoyed a privileged life. Her father was an editor at Punch and her mother was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. Penelope also attended Oxford and before graduating in 1938 she was named woman of the year in the student newspaper, Isis. She then went on to work at the BBC and soon married; however, her marriage turned out to be a difficult one. Her husband returned from the war a changed man: recognized as a war hero, he had also become an alcoholic. Life was not easy for Fitzgerald, yet she carried on.

Fitzgerald was 58 when she published her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burney-Jones. Her first novel, The Golden Child, was written to amuse her sick husband, who died in 1976. Fitzgerald continued writing. Julian Barnes, in his tribute to Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, nicely sums up her writing career:

In the period 1975-84 she published two more biographies and four more novels. Those four novels are all short, and written close to her own experiences: of running a bookshop, living on a houseboat, working for the BBC in wartime, teaching at a stage school. They are adroit, odd, highly pleasurable, but modest in ambition. And with almost any other writer you might think that, having used up her own life, she would – being now in her late 60s – have called it a day. On the contrary: over the next decade, from 1986 to 1995, she published the four novels – Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower – by which she will be remembered. They are written far from her obvious life, being set, respectively, in 1950s Florence, pre-revolutionary Moscow, Cambridge in 1912, and late 18th-century Prussia. Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.

In 1979 Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for Offshore. Her 1990 novel The Gate of Angels was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Fitzgerald’s novels may be short, but they reward close reading; she eliminates all she believes unnecessary. “I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much,” she said. But, as Barnes notes, “it is more than just a taste for economy. It is the art of using fact and detail so that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

In an article in Departures, Jo Durden-Smith reports that she asked Penelope Fitzgerald what she needed to have before she could start writing. Fitzgerald answered succinctly: “A title, the first paragraph, and the last paragraph.”

The title The Gate of Angels relates to the novel in a number of ways. Besides referring to the actual gate of the fictitious Cambridge college of St Angelicus (we soon learn that the college was once a religious institution but is now one of science), it is crucial in terms of the religious significance of the ending. It also alludes to one of the main characters, Daisy, who is only introduced in Part 2, but who is clearly an angel of sorts. Not only does she train as a nurse and minister to the sick, her behaviour comes to suggest the 19th century domestic ideal of the “angel in the house.” Fitzgerald’s insights into the situation of women at the beginning of the 20th century are realistic. As critics have noted, she does her research.
In an article published in the journal of Literature and Religion in 2013, Christopher J. Knight adds a fascinating footnote in which he says that Fitzgerald originally wanted to use the title The Unobservables, a reference to both science and religion. (This title preceded the dreadful Mistakes Scientists Have Made — which was suggested by the publisher but dropped because it didn’t fit on the title page!) Knight argues that Fitzgerald believed that science and religion need not cancel each other out but can coexist sympathetically. As the original title more clearly suggests, Fitzgerald’s novel is not simply a romance but also a novel of ideas.
The opening paragraph is striking. I found it quite hilarious and was impressed that Fitzgerald could maintain that level of wit throughout the first part.

How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouses. On the open ground to the left the willow-tress had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.

Considering the importance of the opening paragraph, one can see that the world is being turned upside down, signalling a time of major change. The wind represents invisible forces and brings to mind the winds of change. I thought about this in relation to the emphasis on what is observable. Of course, the effects of the wind are visible here with the cows on their backs and their legs in the air, somewhat sexually suggestive. Yet, traditionally the wind has an association with the holy spirit, so there is the possibility of a spiritual or religious dimension at work as well. While the larger debate the novel encompasses is between science and religion, Fitzgerald cleverly presents that debate as between the seen and the unseen, which complicates the scientific perspective since there is much in physics, in particular, that can’t be seen, at least not by the naked eye.
When I read the opening paragraph, I couldn’t help thinking of another novel that begins with a violent storm. In Leaf Storm, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the magic realism, begins with a storm to herald change, in this case the destructive force of capitalist development in Columbia. On her part, Fitzgerald may also be alluding to the forces of destruction about to be unleashed by the Great War.
There is also a strong element of the absurd, or whimsical irony in Fitzgerald’s opening. The college, we learn, still disallows the fellows to marry (not to mention that women are not admitted here). This is what gives rise to the narrative conflict, as the main character, Fred Fairly, a fellow at the college, accidentally bumps into Daisy, which sparks their romance. Barnes likens the chance meeting between Fred and Daisy to particles in collision. There may be other forces at work as well.

In his review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald, Alan Hollinghurst writes:

“Must I explain this?” [Fitzgerald] asks herself of Daisy’s religious faith in The Gate of Angels. For the unexplained in Fitzgerald is sometimes the inexplicable, and anyone who reads all her novels will be struck by the recurrence of the uncanny, from the raucously restless poltergeist in The Bookshop to the nocturnal vision in the Russian birch woods in The Beginning of Spring, to the miracle at the close of The Gate of Angels, which is in fact the opening of a never-opened gate. How this happened she will not say, but there is no doubt that she believes it did.

The history of the fictitious college is also relevant in relation to the title and the ending. Fitzgerald mentions that the gate to the college only opened on two other occasions. Well, at the very end of the novel it opens for the third time — a miracle, and one that made it possible for Daisy to be on the road just as Fred was returning to the college. Must we be told what that means?

Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a strange novel. It’s not the first Haruki Murakami novel I’ve read; a year or so ago I read IQ84, which was also strange, but not extraordinary in the sense that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is extraordinary. Prior to its translation into English, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was initially published in three volumes in 1994-95, but in Japan. It appeared in English in the US in 1997. In his interview with the Paris Review, Murakami comments on the novel’s strangeness: “During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That ‘strangeness’ was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel.” Murakami was also influenced by a number of American writers. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Murakami casts a spell on his readers. He introduces us into the quotidian world of a Tokyo suburb, but what ensues draws us into another world, one that seems familiar but quickly becomes increasingly strange. Perhaps a better way to describe the novel is to say it’s uncanny.

Murakami is an extremely popular writer, with sales in the millions worldwide. As reported by John Wray in the Paris Review, No. 182,

Internationally, Murakami is now the most widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation; he has won virtually every prize Japan has to offer, including its greatest, the Yomiuri Literary Prize. He is also an extremely active translator, having brought writers as diverse as Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Japanese readers, many of them for the first time.

As an experimental writer, Murakami is hard to place. Wray notes that

His greatest novels inhabit the liminal zone between realism and fable, whodunit and science fiction….

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is often referred to as a detective novel, but I think that to say it is also science fiction veers off course. It would be more appropriate to call it magical realism, as Murakami embraces realism and the supernatural.

The novel begins with the disappearance of a cat. The protagonist and narrator, Toru Okada, is a young man who has recently lost his job, so he now spends his days grocery shopping, and cooking and cleaning for his wife, who supports them. Moreover, it’s her cat. After receiving a mysterious phone call with a message instructing Toru on how to find the cat, he climbs over the wall behind his house to search the alley, which is inexplicably blocked at each end. On one side is a vacant house. Apparently bad things have happened to the people who lived there. One could say it’s a haunted house.

While searching the alley, Toru meets a young woman, May Kasahara, a high school dropout who spends her time sunning herself in the backyard across from the abandoned house. She is a Lolita-like figure although Toru does not become sexually obsessed with her; rather she becomes his neighbourhood buddy. Prompted by the mechanical cries of an unseen bird, May calls Toru Mr. Wind-Up Bird. The novel is after all a chronicle of Toru’s uncanny experiences and the bird’s cries ominously call attention to those experiences

Soon Toru’s wife also disappears and naturally, he is determined to find her. More strange messages are received as well as unusual visitors, mostly women, some of whom are psychics.

My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. In the spiritual world, the women—or men—are quiet, intelligent, modest. Wise. In the realistic world … the women are very active, comic, positive. They have a sense of humor. The protagonist’s mind is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take. I think that’s one of the main motifs in my work. It’s very apparent in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist is advised on when to be active and when to be passive by Mr. Honda, a channeler and acquaintance of Toru’s father-in-law whom the couple are obliged to visit monthly. Mr. Honda also advises Toru on his job search.

“Legal work might be the wrong thing for you, sonny,” said Mr. Honda one day….

“It might?”

“Yep, it might. The law presides over things of this world, finally. The world where shadow is shadow and light is light, yin is yin and yang is yang, I’m me and he’s him. ‘I am me/He is him:/Autumn eve.’ But you don’t belong to that world, sonny. The world you belong to is above that or below that.”

“Which is better?” I asked, out of simple curiosity. “Above or below?”

“It’s not that either one is better,” he said…. “It’s not a question of better or worse. The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. ‘I am he and/He is me”/Spring nightfall.’ Abandon the self, and there you are.” (51)

Toru tries to follow this advice, but it becomes increasing difficult to distinguish between reality and dreams. Dreams, in fact, become lived experiences. Possibly inspired by Doris Lessing’s Memoir of a Survivor, we find that Murakami’s protagonist is also able to project himself through walls, but into situations that have real consequences.

As I suggested earlier, Murakami is heavily indebted to Hawthorne, in particular his short story entitled “The Birthmark.” After deciding to descend into the dry well behind the abandoned house, Toru undergoes a transformational experience and finds himself left with a mark in the shape of a tiny hand on his cheek. Much later, he discovers that he has become a healer.

Commenting on Murakami’s influences, in his New York Times 1997 book review, Jamie James comments:

Parts of ”The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” have the bluntness of Hemingway, and the characters frequently speak to each other in noirish riddles. Yet the novel’s biggest debt is to Kafka, whose influence may have filtered down to Murakami by way of Kobo Abe, Murakami’s great category-smashing predecessor. The pervasive atmosphere of alienation in Murakami’s work bears a much closer affinity to the waking dreams of the German Jew in Prague than it does to the belligerent angst of the American Gen-Xers.

A Japanese Kafka? Quite possibly as one of his later novels is entitled Kafka on the Shore. Somewhat like Kafka’s K, Toru’s experiences are not all positive. One thread involving his cold-hearted brother-in-law leads to the uncovering of political corruption and tales of brutal rape. A background story of Japan’s involvement in Manchuria during WWII also takes on a prominent role and contains scenes of shocking violence and cruelty. Murakami weaves together all these mysterious and varied threads, creating a strong impression of modern Japan and its buried traumas. Not all is black — as the cat does come back. Rather than include too many spoilers, let’s just say this is postmodern fiction at its best.


Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue Thread is the first novel by Anne Tyler that I’ve actually read. Like others, I saw the film adaptation of The Accidental Tourist, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although the story wasn’t the kind I’d normally read. I found it closer to popular fiction than literature. However, Tyler has been compared to other revered American writers, such as Eudora Welty and John Updike. Tyler also won the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons in 1989. I remember how a smart colleague of mine raved about it at the time.

Still, I’m not entirely sure why A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. I suspect that it was because American authors have only recently become eligible for the prize and that her nomination was influenced by her earlier work. In a recent interview with the BBC, Tyler, who was born in 1941, suggested she may not live to complete another novel although she is scheduled to write an updated version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

I also read that Tyler’s husband is a psychiatrist, a fact that may have influenced the construction of her narrative, which in some respects reads like a case history. The story hinges on the Whitshank family, tracing the life of Junior Whitshank back as far a 1926, when he seems to have emerged from Appalachia. In the third part of the book we learn about his marriage to Linnie Mae and the two children they raise in the house Junior built. While the daughter marries up, the son Red, marries an intelligent and educated woman who becomes a social worker as well as a mother. Somewhat reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Red’s wife Abby becomes the central character, who upon reaching old age dies. Over the course of the novel, Abby and Red have three children, two girls, who both do well for themselves, and a son, Denny, who is more or less a never do well who, as far as we see, never fully grows up.. There is also an adopted son, and his unexpected inclusion in the family seems to have disrupted Denny’s development. Soon after Abby’s death, Denny tells his adopted brother how much their mother loved him and how she considered him special:

If she hadn’t, you’d have led a very different life, believe me. You’d have been shunted around who knows where, rootless, homeless, stuck in foster care someplace, and you’d probably have turned into one of those misfit guys who have trouble keeping a job, or staying married, or hanging on to their friends. You’d have felt out of place wherever you went; there’d be nowhere you belonged.

Of course, Denny ends up describing himself. While the other children thought their mother showered attention on their biological brother, Denny felt neglected, the odd man out, the misfit. Abby and Denny’s stories remind us that the best of intentions can produce unwanted effects. This seems to be the theme of the novel — that problem children are not necessarily the result of bad parenting but the manifestation of unforeseen consequences, yet another example of life’s not so little ironies.


Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart

I had never heard of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector and don’t fully understand why. She is an important modern writer. In 2009, Benjamin Moser published his biography on her entitled Why This World and it appears to have renewed interest in her work as a series of new translations followed. In his article for The New Yorker, Moser informs us that she

was nine when Virginia Woolf asked a question she later quoted: ‘Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ The question, Woolf believed, applied as much to women of her own day as it did to women of Shakespeare’s. How did Clarice Lispector—of all people—succeed at a time when so many other women were silenced?

Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, was written when she was only twenty-three and caused a sensation when it was published in Brazil in 1943. There is not much in the way of plot, yet it can be described as a coming-of-age story, thoughtfully structured and narrated from the first person point-of-view, which makes the intense interior monologues all the more compelling. We are introduced to the narrator, Joana, when she is still a child, living alone with her father, who is a writer. She feels neglected and is trying to get her father’s attention, so she reads him a short poem she has written, but he fails to grasp its import. It becomes obvious that he is preoccupied with his own writing and doesn’t have time for his daughter. In the next chapter, we meet Joana when she is married. The juxtaposition of the two scenes, as in Eisenstein’s film editing, enables us to see how in her marriage Joana is caught in a role similar to the one she played for her father. The sense of her entrapment is effectively conveyed. Her husband, moreover, is busy, writing a book on civil law, a legal system that subjugates women.

What has changed, however, is that Joana has developed a strong sense of herself that she finds interrupted by her husband’s presence. When she concentrated on herself, she “continued living the thread of her childhood.” It’s as if married life, being domesticated, is a cage for the animal she feels inside herself.

It is curious I can’t say who I am. That is to say, I know it all too well, but I can’t say it. More than anything, I’m afraid to say it, because the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say.

In other words, while language constitutes identity and enables a degree of self-expression, paradoxically, at the same time, it represses something essential. For Joana, “Music was of the same category as thought, both vibrated in the same movement and kind.” Seeing has a similar capacity. Being fully alive to her senses, being certain that she is alive, bring what Woolf called “moments of being,” a profound sense of connection to the world and the interconnection of all that is alive.

We then go back in time, following her father’s early death, and find Joana living with an aunt who is disturbed by her niece’s strong character and defiant nature, marking her as decidedly different. Before long, Joana is sent to a boarding school where we meet her teacher and his jealous wife. The tense, triangular relationship is then repeated when we return to her marriage, as another woman is now present. This is Lidia, her husband’s mistress, who is pregnant with his child. Although Joana longs for her own child, her husband leaves. At first, she is devastated, but she soon comes to realize that she is now free to be herself and passionately embraces her new life — her life. Fittingly the title of the novel is taken from a quote by James Joyce: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”

Clarice Lispector was born in the Ukraine in 1920. When she was a child, her parents, who were Jewish, immigrated to Brazil. Moser notes that in his biography

I examined her roots in Jewish mysticism and the essentially spiritual impulse that animated her work. As the Kabbalists found divinity by rearranging letters, repeating nonsensical words, parsing verses, and seeking a logic other than the rational, so did she. With some exceptions, this mystic quality, which can make her prose nearly abstract, is less visible in her stories than in novels such as “The Passion According to G.H.” or “The Apple in the Dark.” But to see Clarice’s writing as a whole is to understand the close connection between her interest in language and her interest in what—for lack of a better word—she called God.

Thus we can see Joana’s profound sense of liberation at the end of the novel as her full spiritual awakening.

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is another contemporary novel that draws on significant events that have been shaping the twenty-first century. It is set in Madrid in 2004. Adam Gordon, the first-person narrator and protagonist, is a young American poet who is staying in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship. The novel opens with him making one of his regular visits to the Prado, where he has been studying Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross.

According to Wikipedia,

The emotional impact of the weeping mourners grieving over Christ’s body, and the subtle depiction of space in van der Weyden’s work have generated extensive critical comments, one of the most famous being, that of Erwin Panofsky: ‘It may be said that the painted tear, a shining pearl born of the strongest emotion, epitomizes that which Italian most admired in Early Flemish painting: pictorial brilliance and sentiment.’

In the actual novel, Lerner provides a black and white close-up of the man weeping over Christ’s dead body.

When Adam arrives at the painting, he finds a man standing in the place he usually occupies. Stopping a distance away, Adam has the uncanny feeling that he is observing himself. Although he is not, this perception clearly conveys the acute sense of self-alienation Adam continues to experience, an experience that may be exacerbated by the drugs Adam freely consumes. Nevertheless, Adam’s profound sense of disconnect, of always feeling removed from his experience, expresses a contemporary malaise.

In contrast to Adam, the man studying the painting begins sobbing. While Adam is shocked, he is also envious of the man’s intense emotional experience because Adam is not able to be moved by art in this profound way. This introduces one of the major themes of the novel: Learner questions art’s ability to perform such a function, especially within a political context. Can art or poetry still move people to action?

Adam meets up with another young man who runs an art gallery. His sister, Teresa, becomes the translator of Adman’s poems. These are fragments of Fredrick Garcia Lorca’s poetry Adam has translated, interspersed with other fragments of his own writing. Of course Adam and Teresa become romantically involved although a certain distance in their relationship is maintained.

The title of the novel refers to the climax of the narrative when the Madrid Atocha metro station was bombed by terrorists, killing 191 people and wounding nearly 2,000. This tragedy intensifies Adam’s sense that art is irrelevant in today’s world. He believes that what is needed is direct political action and that poetry or art for that matter can no longer rouse people to act. Because of the attention he gets as a poet, Adam feels like a fraud — his feelings of unworthiness seem to be compounded by his being American and deeply ashamed of the Bush administration. By the end of the novel, however, he has succeeded in getting a book of his poetry published and meeting the requirements of fellowship. The chapbook

was wonderfully made, its quality anachronistic, befitting a dead medium.

Considering all the relevant issues that Lerner raises, the trite, happy ending is a disappointment. Adam plans “to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by [his] friends.”