Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

9781847087454-1       leaving-the-atocha-station1

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is a quick, sometimes repetitive read. Its protagonist is unsympathetic if sometimes disturbingly relatable. It documents a year in the life of Adam Gordon, an aloof poet who conned his way into a Madrid fellowship. Gordon’s distaste for poetry is a recurring gag; he derives more pathos from a poem’s failure to achieve its goals than from its actual content. This alienation, the inability to appreciate his art on anything other than a meta level, extends to every facet of Gordon’s life. He’s detached and myopic; he’s a disingenuous loner in a constant state of crisis. He’s frustrating. He’s fascinating. He’s hilarious.

It’s hard to disentangle Gordon from Lerner, himself a poet who spent a year in Madrid. My American Lit professor last year loved the refrain that an author should, “Disappear, disappear, disappear.” But it’s so common for writers to invest their work with their own anxieties and personalities, from Woody Allen to Charlie Kaufman to Lena Dunham. In a memorable scene from Kaufman’s Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman tells his brother Donald that he’s written himself into his screenplay, referring to his action as “Self-indulgent, narcissistic, solipsistic.” Such descriptors are perfect for Adam Gordon, whose world is rocked when he discovers that his lover Isabel has a life separate from his own. Similarly, he’s confused to find that his translator and friend Theresa is also a poet and distinguished intellectual in her own right. Gordon’s character development is ambiguous; he meets new people, adopts new habits, and engages with the world a little bit more. But it’s unclear whether this is indicative of a permanent change in temperament.

Leaving the Atocha Station begins with Gordon describing his morning routine, which consist of smoking hash, drinking coffee, showering, and staring at a painting of Jesus descending the cross. But on this particular day, the routine, the ritual, is disturbed – Gordon’s favorite bench is occupied by a weeping stranger, experiencing what Gordon repeatedly describes as a profound experience of art. Gordon has never had a profound experience of art; he seems incapable. He’s too removed from the world, too incapable of dealing with art in a way that’s not stiflingly self-conscious. He follows the stranger around, marveling at him as he profoundly experiences every painting he engages with. Since finishing the book, I’ve been thinking about my own profound experience of art. You don’t need this kind of tear-inducing experience to enjoy and/or love something, but it does seem to be desirable, to be indicative of some human tendency. I’ve found it in books, music, and movies; I’ve never had a painting bring me to tears.

Gordon is a fraud. Or at least he views himself as one. “When are you going to stop pretending you’re pretending to be a poet?” asks Theresa. Theresa may understand Gordon more than he does himself; she sees through him at their first meeting, when he lies to her, telling her that his mother has recently died. His engagement with his friends is as conscious and detached as his relationship with art. He comes to rely on what he perceives as his bad Spanish, hoping that Isabel and Theresa will project artistic intellectualism behind his inability to communicate in their native language. The very process by which he makes friends is based on constructed misconceptions; he hangs on to a group in a bar, hoping that each member will assume that he was invited by one of their own. This works. Arturo talks to him because he thinks everyone else talks to him. Everyone else talks to him because they think Arturo talks to him.

Gordon is an atypical protagonist. Lerner writes in first-person, so his protagonist’s voice dominates the book. Thankfully, Gordon isn’t as unsympathetic as he could be. He’s a liar, a fraud, and possibly a sociopath. But his voice carries the book, taking us to unexpected places. It’s intellectual, self-aware, and sardonically funny. The book’s central irony, the poet skeptical of poetry, never ceases to be funny. Lerner hammers us with instances of Gordon’s disingenuousness, repeatedly reminding us of his linguistic stratagems, and his fear that fluency will bring discovery of his falseness. He understands his flaws, but is often uninterested in seriously dealing with them.

The book has little in the way of plot, but there is somewhat of a climax in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which shock Gordon into an awareness of the world around him. Here, the story turns. Gordon’s Spanish gets better and better, and his relationship with Theresa is on a path to uncomfortable honesty. Don’t expect suspense or a rich range of developed characters. This is Gordon’s story, and your ability to appreciate his intellect and humor determines your ability to enjoy the book.

At one point, Gordon gets lost in Barcelona while going for coffee to bring back for him and Theresa. He loses a day in the city, aware of how pathetic his situation is, how it will be perceived. At this moment, Gordon is at his most relatable. He’s powerless – unable to control his engagements. He panics. We’ve all been lost before; Lerner expertly captures this feeling and the self-loathing which accompanies it.

Lerner honestly and convincingly relates Gordon’s struggles with myopia and alienation. The book is repetitive, though not necessarily to its detriment. Gordon’s routine, his repeated habits and thoughts, are reflected by the book’s plot. The plot gains more flux towards the end as Gordon is truly forced out of his comfort zone. The book could have been shorter, but it didn’t need to be. Lerner knows how to keep our minds active, how to tickle our amusement with an ironic detail. Leaving the Atocha Station is unlike any book I’ve read. Lerner took a risk in writing about a protagonist which zero redeemable qualities. But Gordon is a wonderful object for our curiosity; his relationships with art and people cause us to think about our own. I’ve been thinking about this book a lot since I finished it. It’s esoteric and pretentious, but it works – it’s easy to read, it’s funny, and it’s criminally clever.

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One Response to “Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner”

  1. Judson Merrill Says:

    Well said! I’m impressed with the way this book avoids our old friend the imitative fallacy. Books with petty, self-obsessed narrators are usually petty and self-obsessed. This one’s about being too self-conscious to engage earnestly with the world, but it manages to engage earnestly with the world.

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