A Review: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner’s debut novel has been cast as a philosophical meditation on art, as seen through his narrator’s, Adam Gordon’s, eyes while on a poetry fellowship in Madrid. Adam moves through the Spanish streets, in Madrid and farther afield, and ends up wandering through museums, dating a gallery owner, visual artist and poet, partaking in a public panel on “Literature Now,” and, albeit unwillingly, reading his poetry to the crème de la crème of Madrid’s art and literature scene. But more than the art itself, the import of Lerner’s novel lies in Adam himself and the way he uses art, among other things, as a way to experience the inexplicable world and, at times, as a shield against experiencing it at all.
Lerner’s background, like Adam’s, is as a poet and a damned fine one. Three books of poetry and plenty of awards preceded his first novel. While the plot of the novel is easy to fall into, Adam’s vacillations between women and friends providing both humanity and humor, the aspect that heightens the slim book is Lerner’s language. His tendency towards the poetic, a rhythm and a way of stringing together unlikely phrases, creates a mimetic novel, art about art.
“You can view any object from any angle or multiple angles simultaneously or you can shut your eyes and listen to the crowd in the arena or the sirens slowly approaching the red car or the sound of the pen writing down the years as silver is hammered and shaped.”
In essence, the novel is less about art and more about the other elusive big word, self. Adam struggles with his poetry and with being a poet as he struggles with his relationships, with his medication (prescribed and not), and the idea that he has no substance in the world without them. He is the sum of his parts and his arts. An unnamed foundation gave the poetry fellowship to Adam on the premise that he would write an epic poem about Spanish literature’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War. Yet he often repeats, to others who threaten to unmask his aloofness toward the project, that poetry isn’t about anything. With all of Adam’s doubts and his unannounced determination not to write at times, he seems to be insisting that he is not about anything.
Adam is not a very likeable character; he is passive-aggressive, depressed, and self-absorbed. But because of all of this, he’s tangible, a person not a hero, and Leaving the Atocha Station is his story. However, I believe there is a rule inscribed somewhere that demands a poet’s story must be told through poetry. Lerner created a lovely slip of a novel and readers unfamiliar with his poetry will be pleased with it. I hope he returns to poetry.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Coffee House Press, September 2011