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Leaving the Atocha Station Hardcover – 5 Jul 2012

3.3 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 5 Jul 2012
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Granta (5 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847086896
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847086891
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.7 x 22.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 531,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


A remarkable first novel ... Gales of laughter howl through Leaving the Atocha Station. It's packed full of gags (Adam is convinced that Ortega y Gasset is two people, like Deleuze and Guattari) and page-long one-liners itemising the narrator's ghostly immunity to normal human relations ... After the attacks, with the election of Zapatero imminent, an activist tells Adam that he has been "up all night protesting and partying. I asked if those were the same things, protesting and partying." The question is not asked maliciously and the book never feels like satire. What is does feel like is intensely and unusually brilliant. Beyond that, I don't know quite what it is and I like it all the more for that. --Geoff Dyer, Observer

The narrator of Ben Lerner's short but potent novel is, by his own admission, a fraud... A morbid fascination at his social awkwardness and self-destructive duplicity, and the tension created by a mind teetering on the edge of panic, are some of the more straightforward pleasures of the narrative. But there is much more to this beguiling text. We perceive an intellectual rigour and ideological coherence behind Gordon's masks; through these Lerner sets up profound questions about the possibilities of art and human experience... That the novel refuses to yield clear answers is no accident. Like the literature Gordon eulogises, its charge derives from the ambiguities that emerge from its contradictory propositions. --The Times

Hilarious and crackingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence. --Jonathan Franzen

About the Author

Born in Kansas in 1979, BEN LERNER is the author of three books of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the North California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Munster State Prize for International Poetry. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel.

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Format: Paperback
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.
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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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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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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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