Leaving the Atocha Station is a perfect little book to get lost in; it will in equal measures make you laugh, contemplate, and feel a bit better about yourself. The novel is essentially about a young American man, living in Madrid on a fellowship, who spends his days self-medicating, partaking in drugs, as well as, the Spanish way of life, all the while trying to write a poetic masterpiece by bridging the barrier between two different languages and cultures. It will appeal to anyone who has spent time abroad, trying to navigate a culture, language and way of life markedly different from one’s own.
This is Ben Lerner’s first foray into fiction; his previous publications are in postmodernist poetry. His immersion in poetry, and identity as first and foremost a poet, is apparent when you read this novel, as there is many a monologue that deals with the act of writing and the power or lack thereof of poetry: whether it has the power to change anything, or what is our relationship with art. Our protagonist, Adam Gordon, is an academic on a most prestigious fellowship, but simultaneously struggles with the meaning of his work and the nagging suspicion that he might be a fraud. The book juxtaposes Adam’s struggle with the question of authenticity and his own perceived ineffectuality with important events such as the Iraq War and the 11-M commuter-train bombings that happened at Atocha Station. These events that seem to cast long shadows in the novel; he is asked about the “United States of Bush” regarding American policy on terroristic activities or reads about the recent bombings online from his apartment, a mere walk away from the Station.
Ultimately, Lerner’s novel tells a rather human story about a flawed man and his relationship with his art. Feelings of fraudulence, impotence and lack of authenticity are emotional states that will be uncomfortably familiar for many people – especially academics or those who call themselves intellectuals. I think many of us have had those dreaded moments where we feel as that art or intellectual pursuits are somehow pointless in the face of the much larger and more hopeless traumas. Lerner handles this sense of doubt with enough lightness and humour that the reader comes out the other side hopeful, albeit only tentatively.
Yet our protagonist is a fool, and his pretentiousness, ego, and relationship with women can be aggravating to read at times. The reader is left to sigh in exasperation over Adam’s inexplicable reasons for lying about his mother being dead or why he seems to think that his broken Spanish gives him some air of mystery and profundity. Lerner himself studied in Madrid on a scholarship and there are autobiographical elements to the novel; his decision to make the protagonist somewhat insufferable is hopefully not a decision based on his own self. Adam Gordon is a comic figure of both immense pretension and self-deprecation. The reader is meant to laugh at this poseur whose self-dislike and antics as the strange American in Spain is certainly humorous; yet, on the flipside, I also didn’t grow to care about the character much at all.
Leaving the Atocha Station is definitely well written and it shines in its stylish prose about poetry and the literary medium in general. Lerner creates a poignant narrative about living abroad, about academic and intellectual ups and downs as well as puncturing intellectual smugness. It is a worthwhile book to pick up and read in an afternoon or two, perhaps even when traveling abroad. If one can get past the pretentious poseur of a protagonist, this novel may even make the reader ruminate on the ideas it brings up about the written word and the purpose of art both in our personal lives and in the wider context.