Leaving the Atocha Station
This book has two good things going for it: the narrator is smart (which is not very usual, as smarts cannot be easily faked), and his voice pulls off the "Humbert Humbert effect" of making you like him despite his being both a poser and a hypocrite.
Adam, the narrator and a stand-in for Lerner, a poet himself, has interesting things to say about poetry as the art of potentiality, as a way to embody the virtual, the "subjunctive": what could be but is not and will not. This paradox ("embodying the virtual") leads him to conclude that poetry is a intrinsically failed endeavor, and is the reason why he feels like a total fake for posing as a poet, which feeling is either caused by or causes him to indulge in heavy drug use and the slacking off expected of procrastinating artists abroad, with no financial obligations and too much time on their hands.
Adam's antics have the flavor of a Woody Allen movie, his hand-wringing about authenticity always accompanied by compulsive duplicity and self-sabotage. This makes for a good part of the novel's most hilarious moments, which makes it a breezy read, despite some of the heavier philosophizing on aesthetics.
It seems to me this is an earnest investigation into the possibilities of art to comment on reality and have a "profound effect" on people, in the guise of a self-reflective, postmodern, dark-humored romp, a technique that brings to mind the dilemma common in DFW: "It would probably be better to call our own art’s culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material possession is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level". How, therefore, to speak seriously about serious topics in literature, without eliciting a condescending smirk. Thus, the self-mocking of his constant worrying about poetry's purpose, his identification as a poet, and his self-disgust at his own duplicitous situation and personality seem to be a cover for the "uncool" task of asking himself seriously what is the importance of art when compared to the urgency of the actual and historical.
Are these pretzel-like contortions truly necessary? Is this dilemma the true condition of contemporary literature? Or is it just that young writers self-consciously choose to don overwrought armors to battle, which would, should they fall flat on their backs, prevent them from getting up?
It's an enjoyable read, wholly recommended. If nothing else, you'll get a good laugh or two out of it... unless you are a poet, in which case you might get angry instead.