‘A gleeful novel as well as a thought-provoking and often beautiful one’ – Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Named for a John Ashbery poem and set in Madrid in 2004, Leaving the Atocha Station is Adam Gordon’s account of his ‘project’ – a year-long poetry fellowship during which he’s supposed to write a long ‘research-driven’ poem about literary reactions to the Spanish Civil War and its relevance to ‘poetry now’. But Adam’s Spanish is poor (he hired a friend to write his proposal) and he’s not even slightly interested in his alleged project. A self-medicating bipolar sufferer, he’s bewildered, unmotivated and drifting. Convinced neither of his own merit as an artist nor of the value of art as a political tool, he spends most of his days drinking, smoking, sleeping or wracked with jealousy over one or the other of the two woman with whom he’s decided he’s in love. As the clock ticks above his limited time in Spain, he has to decide what to do…

Lerner has packed a hell of a lot into a very short book. Adam’s constant feeling of alienation – his linguistic detachment, his inability to have what he calls ‘a profound experience of art’ – and dissociation – his inability, for instance, to engage with the mass protests after the al-Qaida bombing of Atocha Station towards the end of the book – make for an excellent narration, if a very peculiar, often despicable narrator. We get essay-like digressions on poetry (he’s great on Ashbery) and art and politics, which, in their stream-of-consciousness way, reminded me of Sebald (and the few pictures Lerner has included were very Sebaldian too), but it’s never preachy or overly intellectual in a didactic way – Adam’s ramblings are more like questing, self-questioning forays that never stray too far from humour or self-deprecation. We also get the crossed-wires effect of a mono-linguist struggling abroad – his flapping attempts to interpret Spanish conversations are wonderful to read, but they also fit in very neatly with the theme of translation, particularly poetic translation, that runs throughout the novel. The slipperiness of language and expression is a constant:

‘She described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger.’

It’s not all arty asides, though; there’s romantic intrigue, segues dealing with Adam’s friend Cyrus and his own horrible problems, and socially awkward trips to Granada, Barcelona and the Madrid Ritz. This is a particularly funny book, though it might not always sound like one: our poet-narrator is a seething, hormonal mass of fury, an anxious and compulsive liar, and a dreadful, dreadful lover – he claims his father is a fascist and his mother is dead or terminally ill in order to get attention, he forgets where his girlfriends live. His overwhelming unwillingness to confront himself and his poetry with any seriousness, despite his apparent talent (as evidenced by the reactions of the other characters)  makes him refer to his months in Spain as ‘phases’ of his ‘project’, marked out by his varying drug intake and fluctuating mental health – and it’s comedic beats like this that make this a gleeful novel as well as a thought-provoking and often beautiful one. The poet-as-narrator brings Bolano to mind, and there’s any number of European literary monologues that give Leaving Atocha Station a context (Camus or Knut Hamsun, as the Guardian reviewer suggests), but it’s also got a strong American flavour – Adam’s pained negotiations of ex-pat life express a certain post-9/11 consciousness that’s contextualised by Lerner with the backdrop of the Iraq invasion and the Atocha attack. And, of course, Adam isn’t a million miles removed from the angst-ridden educated slackers of early Easton Ellis.

Any Cop?: Certainly. It won’t be for everybody – you have to be prepared for the poetic digressions and the pretty intellectual undercurrents. But they’re good things! It’s funny as hell. You’ll root for Adam, despite himself. An excellent debut.

Valerie O’Riordan

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