Andy's Reviews > Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
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's review
Feb 14, 12

bookshelves: books-under-300-pages
Read in February, 2012 — I own a copy

From the first page of this wonderfully evocative novel, I felt like I was in Madrid right alongside this narrator, the blatantly pathetic poet Adam Gordon, ambling in its squares & museums, wandering through the streets in the deserted late afternoons and struggling to stay upright through the nights that go on forever. In real life, Adam would be a terrible guide to a city; but as a pill-popping, hash-smoking bundle of anxieties who uses his shortcomings with the language (and his drug dependence) as an excuse not to engage honestly with everyone around him, he's a perfect fictional conduit to this time and place, a youthful Spanish subculture hung up on art, politics and appearances.

Lerner, who is himself a poet by trade, does not write prose in the way I imagine most poets would (I'm usually a jerk when it comes to poets). His sentences aren't clipped or mysterious or soaked in imagery. More often than not, they are meandering and colloquial. It's charmingly messy writing, but the meaning emerges clearly and impressively. He's not afraid to throw in a simple, declarative statement to balance things out either, or to reach for some emotional moments. There is here an impressive mix of sad understatement and comic overstatement.

The book does have a weakness, in my eyes, and it's characterization. None of the secondary characters distinguish themselves; that's a small matter. The fact that Adam doesn't evolve much as the novel goes is a bigger one. And while his lack of evolution is built into the conceit of the book and the character -- Adam is too numbed by his pills and his hash to experience anything fully enough to affect him -- I think the drugs were a handy excuse for the writer to brush off the challenge of making the character come totally into the round (I see it because I've done it myself). Adam appears to make some decisions about his life as the novel concludes, but we know enough about him by then to know that he can't be trusted. He's flawed and incorrigible and, ultimately, I was hoping for something more.

Still, the experience is in the journey, and I enjoyed taking this one.

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