Although frequently compared to some sort of modern day David Foster Wallace (a phrase that sounds somewhat incongruous considering DFW was in his prime in the early 00s), Ben Lerner’s thematic explorations tend to mirror those of Tao Lin much more closely. Perhaps it’s just the way of contemporary literature to exhibit a whiny, drug-addled stream of consciousness, but the parallels between Lerner and Lin seem too strong to ignore, particularly when comparing Leaving the Atocha Station to Taipei.
The apathy of each character in these respective novels, Adam Gordon, a poet who received a fellowship to work on his project in Madrid, and Paul, a young author who embodies the word disaffection, is so unnervingly similar that it makes you wonder if this is truly the prototype for the twenty-first century man, or if Lerner and Lin are simply on an extremely similar wavelength.
However, the one primary difference between Adam and Paul is that Adam seems to be more readily willing to question the value of his art–if anything he’s doing is worthwhile–or if he’s just a drug-addicted gasbag whose managed to fool a lot of people into believing he’s talented. This lack of confidence results in Adam upping his dosage, noting:
Paul, too, is a self-hating writer, though he masks this to himself more successfully with drugs than Adam, making peace with his existence via grim practical statements like, “On average, since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in.” Conversely, Adam teeters toward a more alienated suicidal bent with comments like, “With something like desperation, I resumed my wanderings. I started to feel a little crazy, space curling around the edges, which reminded me to take my white pill. I found another bench and sat down, stomping to scatter the pigeons. Without texture, time passed.”
Late in the fourth phase of my project I decided to up the dosage , to take two white pills each morning instead of one. The white pills certainly did not seem to work for me the way they worked for some people. I always felt a few strains of rumination away from orchestral panic, I was almost always acutely aware of the bones beneath the face.”
While, overall, Taipei is a more cynical novel in the vain of Bret Easton Ellis’ work, it is the main character in Leaving the Atocha Station who showcases a more defeatist outlook, not even exhibiting faith in his own artistic medium of choice with the assertion, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” And it is in this way that Lerner may actually trump Lin as the most nihilistic author of the moment–through characters that are even bleaker than the story itself.