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3.4 out of 5 stars
Leaving the Atocha Station
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 June 2015
Despite being a pretty unlikeable protagonist, he is redeemed as a worthwhile character study in dissonance and with meditations on art and particularly its relationship to both politics and reality/authenticity.

The protag is an American would-be poet abroad in Madrid on a fellowship to do some serious research, but he is just there for the experience. His research is non-existent, his poetry pretty fake as he lifts from existing work, while he is self-medicating. There is also a level of remove added to his interactions through his initially stunted grasp of Spanish. But aware he is faking it, he questions his own art and his own lack of emotions. He knows the shape of an emotion, but cannot populate it with genuine feeling. He thinks poetry may be 'anachronistic and marginalised' an art form, thrown sharply into relief by the bombings of the Madrid rail system which profoundly affected Spanish politics at the time and influenced the outcome of a general lection.

The beginning is particularly strong, as the protag moves from his daily contemplation of the same oil painting to a meditation on the aesthetic sense of the guards sat slumped in chairs throughout the gallery and there are some nice riffs throughout the novel on these themes. He will no doubt irritate some to the point of displeasure, but I enjoyed it greatly.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 January 2012
Ben Lerner is a highly regarded young American poet. 'Leaving the Atocha Station' - the title is taken from a poem by John Ashbery, whom Lerner admires - is his first novel. Set around the time of the Madrid bombings in 2004, it recounts a few months in the life of Adam Gordon, a young American poet who has been awarded a writing scholarship in Spain. Adam is struggling: with doubts about his ability as a poet; with his relationships with women; with the Spanish language; with the question of whether to return to the States or pursue a new life in Spain; with drugs prescribed and unprescribed. The common factor is his sense of mediacy: of being in transit and yet without a defined goal, of being separated from his own experiences in a way that renders them null.

'Leaving the Atocha Station' has been highly praised by reviewers, but left me with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction. The novel of a young man's education in life is a firmly established genre, and certain types of cliché have become hard to avoid, but Lerner seems actively to court some of the worst. In particular, the reader's investment in the story is likely to turn on his or her response to the central character. Lerner is alive to Adam's selfishness and self-absorption, his casual cruelty and mythomanic propensities, and it may be that these qualities were intended to come across as essentially comic - especially as they rarely achieve the results Adam intends - but the abiding impression was of a highly privileged young man who might serve as a living exemplar of the American term 'ingrate'.

Characters that are hard to admire in life may nonetheless prove compelling in narrative. But Lerner never managed to make me care about Adam's intransitive state or his possible futures. He isn't a 'beau monstre'; merely a morally compromised person who, we are unconvincingly assured late in the book, is for all his doubts actually a good poet.

Lerner has taken on some large targets here - the nature and function of art, the mediated nature of almost all of contemporary experience, the relationship between art and politics - but seems to have little new or interesting to say about any of these things. Adam, his consciousness permanently blurred by his erratic drug intake and the interactions between his prescribed medication and the street drugs he uses habitually, loses himself in repetitive speculations about mediacy that aim at profundity but impressed me only as dryly solipsistic. It's never a good sign when a reader becomes impatient with a character in a book as short as this.

A further surprise was that Lerner evinces no particularly striking command of language here. The 'poet's novel' - long on surprising uses of words, short on plot and character - has itself become a cliché, but Lerner really offers nothing out of the way; much of the most powerful language here is in the form of quotations. Since this is a book in which very little 'happens', and which is dominated by Adam's internal monologue, some relief at the level of the word and sentence would have been welcome.

I hesitated before awarding this novel a third star, but this is a young man's writing, literate - which is increasingly unusual - and not actively bad. Readers who want to see what Ben Lerner can really do with words would do better at present to investigate his poetry.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 20 January 2013
This book is written by a clever author, who, it seems to me, wants you to know how clever he is. I love Madrid, have lived a student life and ought to have been pleased with the detail and authentic Madrid feel of the novel, but I had a big problem. I really disliked the protagonist (you cannot call Adam a hero). It is not that he is a drug taking, self-indulgent American spending his country's money and that of his rich parents, unwisely (he is on a fellowship grant for poetry writing). It is that he is a compulsive liar who treats others with disdain. Part of the author's skill is that he makes you see Adam's friends through your own eyes, not Adam's and you realise what cultured and valuable people they are, but this only served to make me dislike Adam even more and I was glad when the book ended.
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There were times I really warmed to this book. It is, at times, amusing and seems to poke fun at itself, which is a good thing. It is, at times, tender and blooms with sweetness just when you're about to give up on it in despair. It is, at times, interested in what is going on outside of the narrator, a paranoid American poet called Adam. It is at these times I loved it. Unfortunately, the rest of the time we get Adam's pointless, drug fuelled neurosis which picks away at everything good in his life and everything good in the novel. I suspect that this is what it is meant to do. I suspect that Adam's dilemma is holistic through the novel that he creates with his own misconceptions, misunderstandings and wasted life. I found it frustrating.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 29 February 2012
It is the year 2004 and Adam Gordon, poet and Ivy League graduate, is studying on a scholarship in Madrid. He is acutely observant, narcissistic, not fluent in Spanish, and a decidedly unreliable narrator. While he seems to be able to distinguish between 'truth' and 'falsehood' the two are blended to form a constant uncertainty. This may, or may not, be a consequence of the 'hash' and the prescription drugs that he consumes on a daily basis, often washed down with a considerable amount of alcohol.
But Adam can tell you more about his failing than I can, and in a far more amusing and telling way! No doubt Isabel and Teresa, both very fond of him, and both given something of a difficult time, could tell us more. Of course in the context we only have Adam's views to go on, and as he is well aware his judgement on them is not to be trusted! Self-doubt, lack of confidence, and uncertainty are at the heart of this novel. As is the relevance of poetry and its meaning in contemporary life.
First person narration, particularly when the narrator is such a dominant force, always risks some loss of empathy. At first I asked, "Why am I in the company of this self-centred young man?" The wry humour, the quality of the writing, and the intriguing point of view, soon won me over. Many of the quotes from reviews suggest that the novel is "very funny". It's very amusing and perceptive but I suggest that this masks a darker vision.
As you would expect Jonathan Franzen puts it better writing in the Guardian that it is "the story of a mentally unstable, substance-dependent young poet brilliantly and excruciatingly wasting a fellowship year in Madrid". The author may have had similar experiences, but he surely did not waste his time!
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on 31 May 2015
Having read Leaving The Atocha Station and then 10.04 and noticed all the glowing reviews by many writers I had decided that perhaps Lerner could do without another one. Nevertheless I have to say that this novel is an accomplished piece of writing and can talk to intelligent arty people picking up perhaps some of their concerns, notably an uncomfortableness in their own skins and maybe some mental health issues, which are central to this story of a young American writer in Madrid and the crowd of young Spaniards he finds himself with. very good
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 12 March 2013
I took the review of this book from the Times and thought it sounded like something i would generally enjoy reading. I found the book tedious and boring, and actually found myself wishing the % away on the kindle! Somehow i could not give up on it, but i felt as though i was endlessly waiting for either something to happen or some blinding insight about one (or any) of the (cold and unlikeable) characters. Full of accounts which go nowhere, self indulgent ramblings and endless text about smoking, drinking, taking tablets and telling lies. I am not sure what the point was to this novel. Inaccessible, utterly depressing and did little for me i am afraid. Maybe the author is a better poet than writer.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 23 June 2013
I really struggled with this book. Although there are passages of text which are written beautifully, they felt like individual pieces rather than flowing in the main narrative. As other reviewers have commented, there is something incredibly self-conscious about the style of writing, self-indulgent even.
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on 4 July 2015
What a gem of a book. I was alerted to this by a creative writing tutor - I had not heard of Ben Learner. The style of writing is reminiscent of the great American writers of the mid 20th century, but very much contemporary. The novel is barely more than a novella but exactly right. A satisfying read.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 5 April 2014
Adam, American, early-twenties, is in Madrid on a Fulbright (or similar) scholarship in 2004. He’s hyper-sensitive (which he manages with pills and dope) and has a creative and questioning intelligence, which unfortunately warps into self-absorption and misanthropy. Initially lonely, he is inexplicably taken up by a wealthy, glamorous and radical set of friends, who take him to cool parties and invite him to perform his poetry at prestigious readings. His two friends Isabel and Teresa are both very understanding of his oddities, and he ought to be having a great time, but remains jealous, picky and callous. The tension built as I waited for him to commit some final outrageously nasty act (but spoiler: he doesn’t – he even mellows a little finally, for a moderately happy ending).

The shy-young-genius Bildingsroman stuff, the thin plotting, the artistic milieu and the city-wandering felt a bit neo-modernist. The unreliable narrating and the included poems and photos felt a bit post-modernist. I liked the funny descriptions of misunderstanding a foreign language, and of the strange ways people act in the presence of Art, and of Adam’s interior hysteria in his relationships.
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