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A new take on the American abroad

Ben Lerner’s novel ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ deftly explores the neuroses of a young foreigner living in Spain.


Ben Lerner

Lerner never trades on the allure of Spain in 'Leaving the Atocha Station'.

Young American poet Adam Gordon is a fraud and a bastard. And the fact he’s spending a year in Madrid, as the recipient of a prestigious fellowship, is thanks to total pretence. Officially, he’s in the Spanish capital to write a “long and research-driven poem… about the literary response to the Civil War.” But Adam intends doing no such thing (thank god). Instead he smokes pot, takes prescription drugs, forms wafer-thin relationships and frets constantly about the validity of his experiences.

If that narrative risks coming off as trite, then Leaving the Atocha Station, by American poet Ben Lerner (who spent a year in Madrid as a Fulbright scholar), is far from it. The book, which is thin on plot, is thick with Adam’s paranoid and self-focused interior monologue; a mean-spirited stream of consciousness that’s both very honest and very funny.

Like anyone who has spent a year abroad, Adam begins his fellowship with bold – and comically unachievable – goals.

My plan had been to teach myself Spanish by reading masterworks of Spanish literature and I had fantasized about the nature and effect of a Spanish thus learned, how its archaic flavour and formally heightened rhetoric would collide with the mundanities of daily life, giving the impression less of someone from a foreign country than someone from a foreign time…

Of course his high hopes and big plans soon descend into a litany of self-doubt and rising panic. In a parody of America’s generation-Xanax, Adam calibrates his bipolar moods with an over-prescribed supply of coloured pills and Lerner captures this chemical nightmare with spine-tingling precision.

Meanwhile, the closest thing to a narrative thread comes from his two breezy relationships with a pair of impossible-to-pin-down Spanish women. Both are vaguely smitten with this up-and-coming poet, and Adam works hard to build his own cult of personality. To elicit sympathy, he says his mother is dead and his father is a fascist.

Click here to listen to James Blick and Guy Hedgecoe discuss ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’.

The writing – fluid, sharp and fast – pulls you along, rarely stumbling. Adam, drug addled and highly pretentious, can be a bit of a bore on his own. But whenever Lerner puts him in the room with someone else, the story sparks. Lerner understands human interaction with unusual clarity and for the egotistical Adam, every conversation is a sparring match, a battle between calm appearance and panicked reality. When one of his girlfriends breaks up with him, Adam plays it cool, but imagines, “breaking the bottle over her head then raking my throat with the jagged glass.”

Lerner also captures the frustration, weightlessness and comedy of being a stranger in a strange land. When people speak to Adam in Spanish, he feigns comprehension whilst processing an expanding web of possible meanings.

She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full… Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish.

Bending reality

But this isn’t a story about the year abroad experience. Smartly, Lerner never trades on the allure of Spain and, curiously, the book could be set almost anywhere. Even the March 11, 2004 train bombings – which slice through the middle of the narrative – are deftly kneaded into Adam’s over-magnified struggles with himself and the people around him.

So, what’s it about? I’m not entirely sure. Which is another way of saying it’s about lots of things. But there’s certainly a sense, given the dreamlike and interior narrative, that Lerner is interested in the elasticity of reality. Adam’s own reality is so vivid and complete that you wonder if there’s room for anyone else inside it.

There is one thing that doesn’t work. Whether it’s because the unlikeable Adam isn’t sufficiently magnetic, or because the story is largely intellectual, cold and clever, Leaving the Atocha Station never really clings emotionally. Maybe it was never supposed to. But one feeling does stay with you. By the end you begin to wonder if you too are just as self-absorbed and screwed-up as Adam. And, to follow the kind of undeniably faultless logic of Adam’s interior monologues, you wonder whether being self-absorbed and screwed-up is in fact totally normal. The effect is striking and, unexpectedly, comforting.

Leaving the Atocha Station is published by Coffee House Press and Granta.

Follow James on twitter: @jamesblick78.

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Published: Aug 31 2012
Category: Culture, Featured, Books, IberoArts, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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