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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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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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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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on 15 November 2016
It’s not often you see a book with Bosch drawings on the cover, so I just had to pick it up and read it.

The novel opens in an art gallery in Madrid where the protagonist Adam sees people relating emotionally with the artworks on display some even sobbing as they are overcome with immense gratitude, appreciation and understanding of the artist’s achievement. Adam cannot understand why as a poet he cannot connect to the artwork in the same way. He starts to question how authentic and real his work is. An interesting beginning to the novel.

However, the rest of the novel felt a bit confused as to where it was going, maybe this was the author’s intention as his character muddles his way around parties, people and poetry with varying success. It’s a short book but with its somewhat rambling storytelling.

It did raise some interesting ideas especially regarding translations of foreign works and how we can appreciate something in another language more, simply because it sounds more intellectual and translators inevitably add their own mark to the work which can lead to a different maybe better interpretation than the actual author intended.

So a novel that throws up interesting ideas but executed in a novel of thoughts which at times worked well but also at times was frustrating to fathom.
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on 19 August 2012
this novel is about an american postgrad on some kind of endowment that funds him to produce 'poetry' in madrid for a while. so he does a bit of that, engages in some low-level drug use, and kind of hangs out with moneyed local arts types.

the novel reads like the product of precisely such a jaunt in spain. there is an almost total 'so what?'ness about the whole exercise. the narrator is on the periphery of everything, doesn't engage with anything either interesting or uninteresting, treats the people he meets, especially the women, with the kind of detachment you get in that james salter book about france, like folks you meet over in europe don't really deserve respect or honesty.

if this novel were meant to parody the kind of baloney that an american postgrad being sent to spain to write something half-assedly, somebody like the narrator, might produce, then it might just work. a clever mise en abime thing. i think it just is that baloney, though. sorry.
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on 1 December 2016
A story about not art itself but of how we relate to it, as the opening chapter cleverly foreshadows. I normally struggle with postmodern gimmicks - I barely finished Sophie's World, and hated Foucault's Pendulum - but here I found the conceit somehow less pretentious, and was able to enjoy the novel as it is.

Rather than exulting writing, as too many books about writing do, Leaving the Atocha Station is almost disdainful of it. Certainly our narrator-writer cuts a truly pathetic figure - a mooching stoner who's found a way to put off getting a job a little longer, who lies to get women into bed and struggles even then. On one level this story can be read as the uplifting coming of age of the stereotypical millennial man-child, as our lead gradually realises his genuine talent for poetry and accept that it might be a legitimate way for him to live. Alternately one can see this as a Lolita-style case of sympathy for the devil.

But the point that occupies most of the book is whether such ambiguity is itself fakery, pretending profundity by saying nothing. It's a trick I find all too common in literary novels - the unwillingness to essay a concrete position, especially on moral questions - but here I find it forgivable, because the novel itself is the answer - not in a self-impressed, clever-clever way, but in a simple and powerful demonstration that this stuff does, ultimately, mean something, even if we feel like we brought the meaning ourselves. Or so it felt to me.
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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 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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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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Adam is a young American poet on a fellowship in Madrid in 2004. He has been funded to work on a poem about the Spanish Civil War but he confesses that he knows nothing about the history of the country and his Spanish is not proficient enough for the task he has set himself. He spends most of his time avoiding contact with the foundation that has funded him, partying with young Madrileños and taking drugs. He seems unable to exist without copious prescription pills, hash, weed, nicotine, caffeine and alcohol.

Adam is the unreliable narrator par excellence. He continually lies to his companions, adopts anecdotes from others as his own, claims that his Spanish is poor but seems to manage in some complex situations. He is fooling the other characters in the book as well as the reader. He is exceedingly egotistic and self-referential. Even when discussing the Madrid terrorist bombings his first thoughts are for his own relationship with Teresa rather than the victims.

The cover of Leaving the Atocha Station is splashed with rave reviews: "luminously brilliant", "intensely and unusually brilliant", "seductively intelligent". I am sorry to say that much of the book left me cold. There were many funny incidents and reflections - like when he leaves his hotel in Barcelona to buy a coffee and (not knowing the name of the hotel) gets lost in the narrow streets for a whole day.

There are undoubtedly splashes of brilliance in this book but they verge on the "look how clever I am" type of writing. There is a very narrow line between brilliance and pretentiousness.....
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