What images come to mind when you think of the word "writer"? Do you see a reporter scribbling in his notebook? A novelist typing away on her laptop? For me, "writer" connotes industry, someone who makes something out of nothing. But what happens to that image if we make our writer a poet? 

In Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011), Ben Lerner gives Adam Gordon, the protagonist of his short novel, the best gig a young poet can hope for: a fellowship abroad. 

Each of the book's five sections denotes a new phase in Gordon's project, which moves from waking up and getting high to the publication of a small book of poems. He is particularly skilled at self-deception through ironic detachment, which he cultivates by avoiding others and experimenting with his meds. 

"The closest I'd come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity."

Gordon congratulates himself "on making contact with authentic Spain, which I defined negatively as an American-free space." However, when history arrives on his doorstep with the bombing at Atocha Station on March 11, 2004, Gordon admits that even "my fraudulence was fraudulent."

Leaving the Atocha Station is the kind of book that feels lived rather than composed—a post-MFA The Catcher in the Rye for professional adolescents. When I finished reading the novel, I wanted to know what Gordon was up to and had to resist the urge to look for him on Facebook and Twitter, which is a shame. I could have given his résumé a boost with an endorsement on LinkedIn. 

Stacey Levine's novel Dra— was originally published in 1998 by Sun & Moon Press and reissued last year by Verse Chorus Press. In many ways it's more timely now than it was then. 

Dra— is looking for a job. She heads to the employment agency, a Kafkaesque labyrinth of Byzantine bureaucracies, and is swiftly overcome by its complexities. There are plenty of jobs, she is assured, but nabbing one that suits her delicate sensibilities proves to be challenging.

"[I]f she delayed employment now and instead asked the Nurse to open her chest, back, and abdomen in surgery this very night, the Nurse would find something terrible inside her, Dra— knew, quite possibly a sly disease that worked slowly over time to clot and stifle its victims' organs with a kind of gristle." 

This scene is typical of the novel. Even though it's entirely sensible for someone who "often ate the wrong things" to worry about her health, it's the context that makes her fear so strange. Dra— is afraid her many ailments will make her unsuitable for employment, but it's her lack of a job that's causing her health to fail. It's a vicious cycle that reflects the way we live now. 

The world Dra— inhabits, however, is, thankfully, nothing like ours. The employment agency is housed inside a massive factory with endless halls, elevators, offices—even an indoor airport. 

While it's a cliché to label strange stories as "surreal," Dra— is the closest thing to dreaming I've found between the covers of a book. Her encounters with potential coworkers are oddly sexual in a dreamlike way in that boundaries are more fluid and permissive than they are in real life. 

In other words, the exact opposite of the 21st-century workplace.

The work that goes on in Matt Bell's debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is old-fashioned. A new husband clears the land and builds a house so that his new family can survive. But when a giant bear shows up, things get weird in a hurry. 

The husband eats a baby and battles the bear. The wife summons a second moon and retreats into a second house that she's sung into being deep beneath the soil. Clearly, we're in the realm of the fantastic. Or are we?

"To open the first rooms and find the deep house made now a palace of memory, a series of rooms in which what I had forgotten had been curated, collected together with what I had tried to forget..." 

What if Bell's story is about art? Perhaps Bell is saying that art—like marriage—requires intense effort, engagement and compromise. To create something new, we must leave our old ways of being in the world behind and allow ourselves to be completely and utterly transformed—and not just once, but over and over again.

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.


See all events on Friday, Dec 2