Thursday, February 2, 2012
REVIEW: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
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.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.