Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

You may have already noticed, but I’m a big fan of Leaving the Atocha Station . In fact, I haven’t been this excited about a book in quite a long time. What is it about the novel that appeals to me? I’m not sure I know. But I’ll take a crack at it.

  • First off, I’m a big sucker for expat stories: American poetry fellow abroad in Spain?- check.
  • I love meta fiction, in particular books about writers writing (or struggling to write): a main character who fears (knows?) his hackneyed rip-off poetry makes him a literary imposter? – check.
  • I love beautiful, witty writing- check and check.
  • And I have a huge soft spot for loveable losers- in this case a main character, Adam Gordon, who is in some ways so supremely self-confident, yet plagued by doubts and miscues at every turn- check.

This last factor is, I think, what makes the story work so well. Adam is, for all intents and purposes, a hash-smoking doofus who finds himself in over his head. He’s an intelligent doofus, but he’s a doofus. He coasts by in spite of half-understood exchanges with the Spanish locals. He lies compulsively, as when he tells people his mother is dead, or that his father is a fascist, then flashes to a mental image of his dad, “gentlest of men,” coaxing a spider onto a piece of paper so he can carry the lost creature outside the house to safety. He sabotages relationships and seems set on submarining his own fellowship. His entire purpose in Spain is to research the Spanish Civil War and produce an epic poem on the topic, yet when the Madrid train bombings take place right in front of his eyes, he is oblivious to history:
"I leaned my head against the wheel and felt the full force of my shame. I wasn’t capable of fetching coffee in this country, let alone understanding its civil war. I hadn’t even seen the Alhambra. I was a violent, bipolar, compulsive liar. I was a real American… I was a pothead, maybe an alcoholic. When history came alive, I was sleeping at the Ritz."
But miraculously, things work out for our flawed hero. He stumbles into meaningful friendships completely by accident. His anti-social screw-ups are accepted as the eccentricities of a creative genius. The two or three lines he memorizes for a panel discussion on current events magically fall into place as the most insightful comments of the night.
"They wanted the input of a young American poet writing and reading abroad and wasn’t that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent."
I have to be honest, I thought the story was headed for a depressing, turd-in-the-punchbowl ending- a suicide, or an epic academic flameout that would ruin Adam’s career, but I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. Things are left ambiguous, to be sure, but the trajectory is enough to imply a happy ending.

It is an entertaining, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting read. Highly, highly recommended.


  1. I agree that it's one of the best novels I've read this year, but I didn't absolutely LOVE it like I have other novels (2666, The Sun Also Rises, etc.). But it's very good. Very good indeed.

    1. Pfft. Let's be honest. It's the best book you'll read this year. Bar none.