Reading Ben Lerner’s debut novel, about a young artist trying to make sense of his work and his own self while abroad, is a bit like being enveloped in the grey matter of the main character’s brain. Adam, a brooding, panic-prone Ivy League poet on a prestigious scholarship in Madrid, lies to his new friends, fakes his way through numerous conversations in Spanish and frets about the authentic encounter – or, more accurately, the profound experience of not having a profound experience.
Lerner, himself an Ivy League poet and National Book Award finalist who once spent time in Madrid on a fellowship, wrestles well with absence as an event. His Adam is moved more by the idea of poetry and the possibility of history than an actual poem or events occurring in real time. As protests surge through the city after the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, he reads about it on nytimes.com and wonders
‘if [his] experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege.’
The combination of tension and languor, grounded by sensual details, recalls Javier Marías. Adam can be loathsome in the extreme, alienating both the reader and those around him. Perhaps an educated, upper-middle-class reader in his or her twenties will find Lerner a worthy chronicler of dissociation, our relationship to art and the urgency of Gchatting. But for those who live outside of this world, something will likely be lost in translation.