Review #65: Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station



186 pages

Publication: Aug 23, 2011 by Coffee House Press

ARC received for free from Coffee House Press

First, I would like to thank  Tricia at Coffee House Press, for noticing my book blog and proposing to send me for free one book of my choice among their Fall Catalogue to review! Isn’t it thrilling when you get a book you did not even have to request or beg for?


I may not have tried this book if I had not received it from the publisher, but I actually enjoyed it.  I was interested in the treatment of several themes in it: being a foreigner, and an artist myself, this novel could not leave me insensitive. It is about the coming of age of a young  American poet, as he spends his fellowship year in Spain. How is he going to spend his time? What about his relationships with others, with other poets, with women, in a country he can hardly understand the language, and maybe most of all with himself?
Just as in the young bipolar hero struggling with alcohol and drugs addictions, there are so many levels of consciousness in this book.

His dealing with language is quite fascinating, as he reconstructs all possible options of reality to counteract the fact that Spanish grammar and vocabulary are beyond his comprehension. I liked also the way he created poems by playing between homophones between two languages. Lerner is himself the author of three books of poetry, and I would like to try one of his, to see if that technique is also behind his own poetical work. The ending of the book may even suggest that poetry in translation could reach higher levels of evocation that poetry in one’s own language. I have myself practiced poetry in my native language and in English, and I do believe there is something to that.

This work invites you to reflect as well on the relation between art (poetry, painting, music), virtual worlds, and reality. Are they three very separated fields? How do they interact? How do you flow from one to the other, without being desperately lost, as in the powerful scene where Adam spends a whole day roaming in the city, trying to get back to his hotel.

Reality appears also as “history in the making”, as one character says, as they witness the train bombings that occurred in Atocha station, Madrid, on March 11, 2004, with all the political background.

If this time for his fellowship does not seem to be at first sight used very efficiently, doesn’t it open actually unto a new dimension for Adam, as he discovers more himself, and has to face the question of his authenticity or his fraud?

This book is presented by the publisher as “hilarious”. I never perceived it as hilarious, but as rather tragic, unless you consider the widespread confusion of young people looking for landmarks through alcohol, drugs and medications, and being so confused about many things, including their own feelings, as hilarious. I don’t.  And that makes this modern portrait of seeking even more so genuine and worth reading.


Adam Gordon is a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self and his relationship to art. Instead of following the dictates of his fellowship, Adam’s “research” becomes a meditation on the possibility of the genuine in the arts and beyond: are his relationships with the people he meets in Spain as fraudulent as he fears his poems are? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? A witness to the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath, does he participate in historic events or merely watch them pass him by?

In prose that veers between the comic and tragic, the self-contemptuous and the inspired, Leaving the Atocha Station is a portrait of the artist as a young man in an age of Google searches, pharmaceuticals, and spectacle. [Coffee House Press]


“My research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself, at best, a poem, where “poem” is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures; only then could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology; only then could my distance from myself be redescribed as critical, aesthetic, as opposed to a side effect of what experts might call my substance problem, felicitous phrase, the origins of which lay not in my desire to evade reality, but in my desire to have a chemical excuse for reality’s unavailability.” p.166 [NB: this is quoted from the ARC, so could be slightly different in the final copy]


Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel. [Coffee House Press] – click on his name to access an interesting interview.

A long interview of the author was published a week ago. You can read it here.


“An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.” –John Ashbery

“Ben Lerner incisively explores the way our own obsessive critical thinking can make us feel that our role in the world is falsified, unreal, and inauthentic, even as, without knowing it, we’re slowly growing into our future skin. Leaving the Atocha Station is a deft and meticulous reading of the development of an artist.” —Brian Evenson




10 thoughts on “Review #65: Leaving the Atocha Station

  1. I’d read about this book on the McNally Jackson blog and have been curious about it ever since. I think I will be putting this on my TBR list.
    I stumbled onto your blog through the Literary Blog Directory. Lovely blog you have here.


    • thanks for your comment. I went to the McNally Jackson blog, and really I don’t understand why they insist so much as it being a funny book. Is it a marketing thing or what? Does a book need to be funny to sell? Hmmm, I wonder. I am now following your blog thru google reader. very interesting.


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  4. Great review! I’m also interested in reading some of Lerner’s poetry now as well. I also thought there was somewhat of a tragic tone to this book that I was very much drawn to. Not “hilarious” in any sense.


    • I’m relieved, I was really wondering what was wrong with me about this hilarious thing. I just listened to There But For The (i’m right now writing my review), supposedly funny too, and God knows where… Yes, tell me what you think of his poems, I woulds be curious to try them as well. Thanks for your comment


  5. The book was very, very funny. And I am an old person. I found myself laughing out loud many times, giggling. Adam’s whimsical emotions, his fury at nothing, his wonderful language mistakes and misinterpretations, his construction of a narrative of love with Isabel and Teresa when neither wants to keep going with him, all of it is very tender and funny.


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