Both Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and J.D. Salinger’s “For Esmé with Love and Squalor” address the question of “how to be” through the adjacent topic of authenticity versus inauthenticity. However, while both stories end on a note of hope, their solutions are radically different. For Salinger, the “way to be” is unquestionably to seek out the authentic experience from among the many, many inauthentic ones. In this way, life is something of a quest, which man, in order to live properly, must recognize and accept before he has any chance of finding the one true, authentic voice in an authentic encounter. Lerner, on the other hand, would never liken life to anything like a quest. For Lerner, there is no authenticity to be found and so there is no point in seeking any. The only way to live is to become self-aware enough to recognize this lack of authenticity and to step outside of it and live apart.
In For Esmé with Love and Squalor, Salinger presents a synthesis of the large idea which obsesses Holden Caulfield, the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye: the problem of finding something authentic amidst all the inauthenticity of the world. This problem of inauthenticity is immediately apparent in For Esmé, as the unnamed narrator describes what amounts to a perfect picture of the hell of banal, middle-class inauthenticity. The narrator, having expressed his wish to attend the wedding in England, demurs to his “breathtakingly levelheaded” wife, saying with ironic recognition of her logic and his own shortcomings in not realizing himself that “I’d completely forgotten that my mother-in-law is looking forward to spending the last two weeks in April with us. I really don’t get to see Mother Grencher terribly often, and she’s not getting any younger. She’s fifty-eight. (As she’d be the first to admit.)” (87). If “breathtakingly levelheaded” is the best that can be said of his wife (who, though she is mentioned several times throughout the story, never gets any more characterization than that), she must be very boring indeed.
This small episode captures the hardship of living trapped in a life governed by inauthenticities for someone who is aware that they are just that. While this inauthentic middle class world is soon left behind for war-torn England, the world of inauthenticity persists as the narrator describes a banal, repetitive existence whose variations depend only upon the weather and which requires no more effort than life at home. However, the narrator here, though passive, is searching for something, whether he knows it or not. It is this search which takes him into the church where he hears the choir children sing and first catches a glimpse of Esmé, whom he is immediately fixated upon. The experience of listening to the children sing is a taste of something authentic and thus he responds to it as he does nothing else in his existence: he tells us that “a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation” (90) as a result of their “unsentimental” voices.
In the café he enters upon leaving the church, he attempts to occupy himself with a few letters from his wife and mother-in-law, but they are so inauthentic and vacuous (bad service at a local restaurant and a plea for yarn, respectively) that he an hardly stomach them. Such inauthentic letters are a recurring motif in the story, coming up again in the second part when “Sergeant X” attempts to read a letter from his brother back home asking him to send “the kids a couple of bayonets or swastikas” (106) but can’t stomach its falsity.
Sergeant X is also surrounded all throughout the second half by letters so empty he has not even bothered to open them. Both Sergeant X and the narrator, though, are saved from this world of inauthenticity by an encounter with true authenticity. This is Esmé. Esmé is the solution to the Salingerian search for the “one true voice” which obsesses Holden in The Catcher in the Rye. Symbolically, Esmé fills this role immediately because it is her literal voice, her singing voice, which draws the narrator’s attention to her and allows him to find her. her voice stands out from the others, ringing out true and clear.
In the first section, Esmé’s voice dominates. It is only ever really hers thats we hear (with only a few interruptions from Charles and the narrator himself). Most often, the narrator recounts his own dialogue indirectly, as in: “I said I certainly had been,” (93), allowing Esmé’s voice center stage. Neither the governess nor the choirmaster is given the privilege of a voice; their dialogue, too, is recounted second hand. The narrator recognizes Esmé immediately as “a truth-lover” (92) and understands her authenticity, even as she strives so hard to be more grown-up than she is (using big words to test if he understands them (“gregarious”), while misunderstanding other, smaller ones (“prolific” which she appears to conflate with something along the lines of “profound”)).
When Esmé leaves, the narrator recounts that it was “a strangely emotional moment for me” (102) emphasizing the impact of this one true encounter amidst the sea of inauthentic one. However, Esmé’s impact doesn’t become clear until the very end, when Sergeant X opens her letter (which is starkly contrasted in its authenticity with the inauthenticity of the the letters of Loretta which come from “a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations” (108) and the letters Clay sends Loretta, which are mostly written by Sergeant X.
Sergeant X has been living only half an existence, spending his time alone in his room reading the same paragraph over and over. His authentic encounter with Esmé was bright while it lasted, but by comparison the rest of the world seems even more inauthentic than before. However, with Esmé’s letter comes renewed hope. The letter is the only authentic one among all the piles of letters and with it comes a both a relic of her and a symbol of truth and accuracy: the wristwatch. The face of the watch is broken, but it still has the potential to work and that potential is enough. The potential for truth is the glimmer of hope in an inauthentic world and so by her gift and her authentic encounter and letter, Esmé has redeemed the narrator, giving him hope and a way to live: constantly in search of the next small moment of authenticity amongst the sea of inauthenticity.
Leaving the Atocha Station, on the other hand, rejects any possibility of authenticity and instead advocates that we embrace our inauthenticity. The novel’s narrator admits, straight out “that I was a fraud—who wasn’t?” before continuing: “Who wasn’t squatting in one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it, lying every time she said “I”; who wasn’t a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life?” (101). From the very start of the novel, this is Adam’s view of life: everything is inauthentic and so there is no point in trying to be authentic. He lies with abandon and takes pleasure in exposing himself and his deficiencies to the reader, as when he admits freely to “not being attractive enough for [his] surroundings” (26) at a party early on.
Such self-consciousness, for Adam and for Lerner, is the only way to approach something resembling authenticity in a world without authenticity. According to Lerner, we can never stop representing ourselves, even when we attempt not to represent ourselves through a lie, we represent ourselves in the lie we choose to tell. This idea is taken up in the metaphor of voting: Adam realizes that Arturo, in refusing to vote, is still representing himself in his absence from the system. The same applies to life: we represent ourselves in everything we do, we cannot help it. Our lies are as much a part of us as our truths, and so the only way to really get to know a person is to know their lies as well as their truths, to get to know them through the language with which they represent themselves, because everything they say is representative of who they are.
This is why language is so important to Adam, who becomes aware of the possibilities inherent in language through his experience of translation and learning a new language in Spain. His poetry is a fragmented mishmash of mistranslated lines retranslated and he himself represents himself through fragments of thought, hoping that these unfinished thoughts might imply greater profundity and comprehension than he possesses. Fragmentation is an essential concept both for Adam’s conception of language and life: “any contingent object… could form the constellation that I was, could form it without me,” (41).
In the end Adam concludes that “if I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak,” (101). The only “way to be” is not just to recognize the inauthenticity of everyone around you, as Salinger suggests, but also to admit one’s own inauthenticity in a supreme act of self-consciousness and step outside of it as best one can, becoming authentic in one’s own inauthenticity. The difference then is this: while both Salinger and Lerner agree that the world is full of “phonies,” as Holden Caulfield would say, for Salinger there is hope in that one day you will be able to find someone authentic and encounter them in full authenticity, while for Lerner, the only hope lies in accepting one’s own inauthenticity and in doing so, conquering it.