Book Review: Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station

If you like witty slackers and know anything about why such a person would be drawn to Spain, you'll double over reading this novel.

Adam is a poet from Kansas on a prestigious scholarship in Madrid.  He drinks and smokes and pops tranquilizers as a kind of job and every so often thinks about poetry, and art, not so much about how to do them but their whole point.  He gets involved with two women who are involved with other men that make him feel inadequate.  He travels to Granada but misses the Alhambra.  The Atocha subway is bombed a block away but he fails to see anything or get out to a single public event with the rest of the city, watching the helicopters buzz over him on the internet at home instead.  On it goes like this - screw ups, self-contempt, and life at a second and third remove.

In one scene he's at the Prado, stoned in front of a canvas, trying to feel it.  A man in the room beside him is weeping.  He's having a moment, the kind you're supposed to have.  Adam, confused, focuses on the guards.  They're more anxious about the man's behaviour than glad at his transcendence, and they follow him around like spies throughout the museum.  This is the existential challenge Lerner poses: how to decipher what is authentic from phony, or just crazy.  How in a world of American "late empire" do you cut through the fluff and get at what is meaningful.

The story takes place almost entirely in Adam's head.  It's told poetically, as I suppose it should be told.  And it foils expectations unrelentingly.  In a pitiful effort to gain the sympathy of a woman, Adam lies that his mother has died, then anguishes about admitting the truth to her.  "I told you my mom was dead, but my mom is alive," he confesses finally months later.

"Oh.  I had assumed," she says, smiling, "that you were just drunk and high and homesick and wanted some attention."  Which was exactly the case.

My one problem with the book is how it resembles (steals from?) BolaƱo's Savage Detectives.  But this is a small matter.  Everyone knows artists steal.

Leaving was on every top-ten list last year, so I guess it's easy to say I liked it.  But I did, really.  It's a book that does nothing and says everything.