Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station

by Tyson on Friday, February 8, 2013

Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station is the title of American writer Ben Lerner’s first novel, a book set in Madrid that has quickly become an American literary sensation. The novel has earned the 33 year old Lerner excited critical praise from The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker (among many other journals) and from writers including Paul Auster and Jonathan Franzen. Lerner’s decision to set his story in Madrid and the book’s success among American readers reflects a growing American interest in the city and in Spain in general.

Leaving the Atocha Station tells the semi-autobiographical tale of Adam Gordon, a young American writer spending a year in Spain’s capital on an unnamed scholarship to work on a poem about the Spanish Civil War (in 2003, Ben Lerner spent time in Madrid on a Fullbright Scholarship). The narrative is introspective, possibly to the point of self-absorption, an endearing and funny characteristic to many critics, annoying to others. Gordon does however have an ambiguous awareness of his surroundings which he uses to paint abstract portraits of the people of Madrid and of the city itself.

A semi-autobiographical tale

Throughout the book, language and cultural barriers veil Gordon’s surroundings with a confusion that creates surprisingly colorful interpretations - although seemingly detached from reality, these indicate that Gordon is wholly engaged with his surroundings, albeit from the distance of his own creative world. We follow the young American poet as he parties and feels his life is filled with a sense of hopeful failure; a type of failure out of which emerges ambiguity and abstraction that promises creative possibility. Failing to fully understand the Spanish Ianguage during what seems like a meaningful conversation, he writes: “I formed several stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand them than that I understood in chords." He also experiences failed attempts at romance in Madrid, he often fails to tell the truth, and most importantly he fails to understand if the promising ambiguity of his anxieties, contempt and failures can inspire passion in poetry or if they indicate that he should quit writing and go do something else.

Lerner’s skill as a poet and his decidedly flexible style shine in this first novel. Gordon’s voice comes in a variety of writing formats. He drifts around Madrid and we drift through his thoughts in the form of lyrical poetry, essay, insightful prose and even an instant text messenger conversation, perhaps the most memorable moment of this memorable book.

Americans in Spain

Although Gordon seems to fail at everything, lie to everyone and live in a world of lazy privilege, his brutal honesty with himself, and the reader, is what makes his voice so engaging. He feels annoyed with America, even more annoyed by other Americans in Spain attempting to escape American annoyance by fleeing to Europe and pretending they are not a part of, or have ever contributed to what he considers American annoyance. He’s mostly annoyed by Americans pretending not be American, because he himself is one of these pretenders. As he attempts to determine if he’s also a pretend poet, Americans reading Leaving the Atocha Station will likely feel forced to consider their own opinions of themselves and their country, as they view Madrid through this unique new book.  


Photo by Antonio Tajuelo


Keywords: madrid,americans in spain,atocha,ben lerner,leaving the atocha station


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