Thursday, February 2, 2012

REVIEW: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. Published 2011 by Coffee House Press.

Leaving the Atocha Station is a good book but its audience is going to be pretty small. It's a moody,  style-driven novel about a student living on a fellowship in Spain, writing poetry, doing drugs and negotiating relationships with women. It's told in the first person by Adam, the student, and covers his adventures and his thoughts about literature, politics and life. The 2004 Madrid bombings occur during his stay; he's a witness, though the events don't seem to shake him up very much. Mostly the narrative follows his adventures in an out of bed with a couple of girlfriends, around clubs, restaurants and galleries and through the thick tangle of his own thoughts.

I enjoyed the book as the self-consciously literary prose poem it is but it's short on plot and is more a series of reflections and moods and less a narrative, although the character does narrate a certain period in his life. Lerner does a nice job capturing the experience of being an American living abroad, the sense of alienation, the sense of detachment and foreign-ness that comes with living on the periphery of a place and a group of people. Adam tries to ingratiate himself into the local literary scene, something that only happens by chance as he attaches himself to a group of strangers at a bar who turn out to be artists, writers and gallery people. Through it all he never loses his sense of separateness and it's this that's communicated so beautifully to the reader.

So who's the right reader for this idiosyncratic book? The right reader is the kind who likes stylized, literary language primarily and doesn't need a lot of story to carry him- or herself along. The right reader probably also loved Tinkers, another literary prose-poem, although this book isn't quite in the same league as that Pulitzer winner. College students or recent graduates would probably like the book as it describes that very particular place and time of life with precision. It's a book about a state of mind, a sense of otherness and a lack of certainty about the future. I enjoyed the book to a point but I didn't love it; but I'm probably not the right reader.

Rating: BACKLIST
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FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

6 comments:

Amy said...

This sounds like an interesting read but ultimately I'm not sure it's for me. I think he might annoy me ;)

bermudaonion said...

Since this is short on plot, it's probably not for me.

Col (Col Reads) said...

I was actually collecting the data for my dissertation in Spain the week of the Atocha bombings -- in fact, I was at the station the morning before the bombings occurred. Thank you for pointing this book out, because I might not have seen it otherwise, and I would really like read it.

Zibilee said...

I'm not really sure if I am the right reader for this book either. While I sometimes love stylized writing, it's not something that I go out looking for, and like Amy, I feel this book might annoy me a little bit. I bet younger readers would get a lot more out of this one than I would, but I appreciated your detailed look and analysis!

Kathleen said...

Based on your description I don't think I am the right reader for this one either!

Emma said...

Read it last summer and found some interesting themes in it. here is my review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/08/27/review-65-leaving-the-atocha-station/