Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Leaving the Atocha Station
Ben Lerner
Coffee House Press, 2011
181 pp. $16.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Daniel O’Conner

It is evident in Ben Lerner’s debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station that Lerner is a poet. The sentences unfold down the page, pushing on clause after clause. His images are vivid; his statements insightful. There is a profundity—or mock-profundity, depending on how much you like and empathize with the musings of the narrator—that attempts to navigate the absurdities of an American poet living abroad, dealing with the reign of Bush back home. The novel is told from the perspective of Adam Gordon, a poet, a dilettante scholar on Ashbery and Tolstoy, and is set in 2004 Madrid. Gordon is on a prestigious fellowship. He doesn’t do a lot, but he reads and meditates on the world around him, and muses on the state of poetry. Self-medicating by smoking spliffs, downing tranquilizers, consuming red wine and espresso, Adam is in a period of stasis. Apart from an exploration of Madrid and a trip to Granada, not much happens in the novel until Adam witnesses the Madrid bombing. And yet this event becomes another item for Adam to inventory, to reflect back onto his own existence. The bombing’s place in the novel is symptomatic of the fact that there isn’t a whole deal of narrative drive in the novel. Yet this is one case when it is barely needed. The mesmerizing prose, the dark humor, the riffs on poetry, and the narcissistic philosophizing are so electric, that plot hardly matters.

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