Review: Leaving the Atocha Station

Posted 3 February, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 1 Comment

Leaving the Atocha Station
By: Ben Lerner
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase

Adam Gordon is a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self and his relationship to art. What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? Instead of following the dictates of his fellowship, Adam’s “research” becomes a meditation on the possibility of the genuine in the arts and beyond: are his relationships with the people he meets in Spain as fraudulent as he fears his poems are? A witness to the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath, does he participate in historic events or merely watch them pass him by?

I have been eyeing this novel for the past year or two. I first stumbled across it on the Book Depository while scouring for novels set anywhere in Spain (an endless search, I tell you) and was immediately intrigued by the premise of the novel: set in Madrid + a foreigner living in another country + reflections on art, language and life? Yes, sign me up!

This book is part of the Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a very odd book, to say the least. The reader follows Adam through his various misadventures in and around Madrid, his interactions with other people and his struggles as a poet. I think it was his struggle with his work that interested me the most; for 5/6ths of the novel he finds himself rather dejected by his work, his feelings on failure and struggling to understand his connection to his work. He doesn’t believe himself to be a genius of any sort, he thinks his work is crap and his Spanish very poor. The reader also watches him struggle to try and get some work done; as a graduate student before, I could relate with his meanderings, minus his reliance on his medication and his recreational drugs to get some focus. His contemplations on his work raises some interesting questions about art, in particular poetry. I’m nowhere near considerably-read in poetry so I find the whole process rather interesting and different on some level. The notion of reflection, of transformation, and of fradulence remains rather foremost in Adam’s mind as he tries to put together a decent poem.

I also thought that his thoughts on living abroad were rather interesting. On one level I totally understood where he was coming from given my own experiences; you could see him adapt to life in Spain but at the same time still not wholly adapt, you know? And he acknowledges this towards the end of the novel, that no matter how much he does, he will never fully assimilate into their culture. It raises some interesting questions about moving to another country and adapting, whether you could ever fully adapt. I would say yes given the country I live in but I suppose this depends on the situation. Language of course plays a major role in the adaptation process and it was one of the reasons why I was drawn to the novel in the first place but I was surprised that it was focused on a lot more compared to other topics that rumbled through Adam’s head (or, at least, it didn’t feel like it was dwelt upon enough to my liking).

Beyond that however I found myself side-eyeing Adam quite a bit (he spent a good chunk of his time smoking spliffs, downing his medication pills or searching for hash), especially when it came to his relationships with other people. His attempts of presenting a particular image of himself was rather confusing; on the one hand, I totally understood what he was trying to do–living in a foreign country and knowing no one, you have the opportunity to present yourself a different way (i.e. be more confident, maybe not divulge much about yourself too quickly, etc.). But lying about your parents and the state of your family life? And assimilating stories you’ve heard from other people and telling them off as your own? Okay, maybe he’s just trying to cover up the fact that his life is pretty straightforward/nothing too outstanding per say but to tell different lies about your life depending on who you were talking to? I couldn’t quite understand what was the point of that, and it started getting frustrating especially with the overall detachment that he was feeling.

As a result Leaving the Atocha Station sort of left me rather lukewarm. I enjoyed the thoughts on art and the way that we associate ourselves to our creative work and to each other (however clear the latter topic was) but Adam’s journey was rather wanting. That climactic moment in which everything fell into place and he made his decision about himself and his associations felt out of place, I didn’t see the connection between where he was before and the leap he made into where he ended up at the end of the novel. Additionally, I didn’t quite get the “humour” that all of the reviewers plastered on the front and first page of the book were talking about, satirical or otherwise. While the weirdness of his story was perhaps what he was aiming for (going back again to him living in Spain as a foreigner and thus providing him with the opportunity to live an odd life for a period of time), as a story it just didn’t resonate as much as it could have. I’m glad I had read the novel but it’s not for everyone.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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One Response to “Review: Leaving the Atocha Station”

  1. The summary had me intrigued, but after your review I think I’ll pass. I get a little bored by stories with lifeless protagonists who can’t seem to find the joy in anything. Sometimes it seems like depressing stories are considered “deep” while happy ones are considered fluff, but the depressing ones seem all alike to me while the happy ones are all different. From your description, it’s like I’ve read this already.

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