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on 20 February 2017
Left to its own devices, Lerner’s elegantly spun prose might purr on ceaselessly; calmly taking the measure of one-after-another labyrinthine thought-adventure. But, there could be no better metaphor for the shifting, porous nature of Lerner’s deconstructed world than the masterly metaphor that this novel itself embodies overall. As played out over the space of so many pages, however, this important sub-text might, indeed, remain hidden from view.

What Lerner’s novel more obviously takes stock of are the blandest aspects of the poet-narrator’s day-to-day life in Madrid, including his skittish encounters with that capital’s younger, more progressive, literary set. Hailing from Providence USA, Adam, the novel’s main protagonist (and First Person narrator) has appeared in the foreign capital as a young American poet of some reputation and still greater promise. While in Madrid he must be seen to make plausible use of the generous research funding that his track-record and research proposal have earned him. Thanks to this fellowship he is free, for a certain period, to advance his poetry within a setting conducive to bi-lingual research and cultural exchange. Aware, however, that he may be unable to deliver the project he had over-ambitiously proposed, Adam studiously avoids foundation personnel and peer fellows; ignoring even their e-mails. He nevertheless manages (if reinforced by tranquillisers, drink, dope, and prodigious intakes of nicotine and caffeine) to weave his way into the capital’s contemporary art and poetry scene. As the days go by he gathers a widening acquaintance, and even entertains potential love interests (as though, for once, he were oblivious to the risks of mistranslation).

As to the smooth-running word-stream that embodies Lerner’s tale, could this betray a certain emotional detachment? For, notwithstanding actual content, what one notices most is the unmistakable whiff of First-Person-singular self-absorption. Whereas detachment would doubtless be routine in the case of a young, averagely amoral male let loose in a foreign capital, detachment is no less a trait of the post-modern poet who scarcely acknowledges his own creative process or product. These he regards as mere outliers; less answerable to themselves than to a far-reaching constellation of super-ordinate structures wherein material and social conditions are conjoined with linguistic practices and forms. How, then, could such a poet view the ‘autonomous creative persona’ as anything but the outmoded obsession of a bygone era?

In truth, apart from his diet of reading, and certain other reflective rituals that he schedules into each day, Adam’s accustomed routine is largely a round of banalities and bouts of free-floating anxiety. Indeed, courting the attention of peer-literati is not the least banal aspect of his sojourn in Madrid. To hype his literary persona in likely venues around town might strike even him as hollow; but the availability of beautiful, highly articulate young women somehow aids his concentration. Nevertheless, conceding power - even to this extent - causes misgivings that lead to episodes of crushing self-doubt.

Will breaking-news of a major terrorist atrocity (and its city-wide aftermath) jolt our hero out of his cycle of appetite, anxiety, doubt and defeat? Might headlong conviction (even engagement) now issue forth, phoenix-like, from the ashes of emotional incompetence? - Possibly so; - possibly not. Poems themselves might sometimes arrive in moments of doubt - and, indeed, serve as its legitimate expression. But how might ‘salvaging doubt from doubt’ seem to square with the poet’s own longing for validation; and how might this meet the expectations of sponsors? Meanwhile, the self-congratulatory fervour of a satisfied translator might upstage the poet’s own wavering belief in his original-if-provisional offering. Perhaps terms like ‘original’ and ‘translation’ cease to have meaning. Especially in this social media era, can anyone truly be anyone - or anywhere truly anywhere - given the perverse pre-eminence of language itself; - its infamously hazardous transmissions, uncertain locus and provenance, un-policed borders, unforeseeable trajectories and incalculable reach?

Perhaps it is the sheer theatricality of his privileged set-up in Madrid that emboldens Adam (on more than one occasion) to lie to his new acquaintances about his home life in the USA. When (possibly due to his own carelessness) these deceptions are exposed Adam promptly apologises, only to spin some mendacious yarn by way of explanation. Perhaps these false trails are a way of milking sympathy. Or might a total nervous breakdown be in prospect?

Yet, Adam’s penchant for lying serves to remind the reader that absolutely nothing he narrates should be taken on trust. Indeed, why might we expect the characters of a novel to be more reliable, understandable or predictable than randomness itself; - or more worthy of respect than false memories or mere hallucinations? No less remarkable is the author’s tendency to toy with passing descriptions in a way that deliberately fudges the matter, or leaves it just as vague as if it had been left alone in the first place. This slovenly effect is the more distancing for being consciously counter-descriptive.

If knowing what we expect from a novel might be a key to self-knowledge, less certain are our chances of understanding others. Some protagonists do understand, however, - even from the very outset - that the poet’s deceptions are just that: outright lies. But their rare perspicacity is revealed to the reader only at a later stage and (so to speak) long after the fact. Might this suggest that, not only the reader, but also the narrator (indeed, author) had been doubly hoodwinked at the time?! – Moreover, in the course of time, it may seem that Adam himself has been subtly misled in a manner that quite outclasses his own poor attempts at deception.

If the scheme of this novel comes down to the age-old axiom that ‘experience will teach us what we need to learn’ readers might not be surprised to discover that this regimen entails raw disappointments and bitter truths. Might some species of mellow optimism emerge as the end-product of this objectifying process? - Perhaps so. But, only by submitting to this curriculum can we ever hope to find out!
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on 13 February 2018
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. It provides much cause for reflection on the self, the power of art in a political context and on the integrity of the artist. I enjoyed the dynamics of the relationships between the central character and his Spanish friends, lovers and associates. His insecurities can prove frustrating but the journey he undertakes during the course of the novel resulted in me feeling more sympathy with his inner thoughts than I did when he first introduced himself. The Spanish context adds greatly to the novel, as does his gradual integration with the locals. A very worthwhile read.
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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 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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on 22 January 2017
Really enjoyed this book. Intrigue, agony and poses some interesting questions about poetry and its purpose, if it must be assigned one. As others have said I found it hard to decide how I felt about the main character. The author paints brilliant pictures of Spain and the Spanish and manages to avoid the usual cliches whilst capturing the atmosphere of Mardrid particularly well.
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on 22 September 2016
I have personal happy memories of a holiday in a hostal near Atocha, so all the descriptions of Madrid were close to me heart. The book was slightly too long...I could have happily finished fifty pages sooner, but....still a good read.
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on 11 September 2016
fantastic book
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on 21 September 2016
Witty and readable. And it's short
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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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