Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Deb Olin Unferth
Leaving the Atocha Station
by Ben Lerner
$15.00 List Price
Ben Lerner’s first novel, coming on the heels of three outstanding poetry collections, is a darkly hilarious examination of just how self-conscious, miserable, and absurd one man can be. Leaving the Atocha Station tells the story of Adam, a poet on a prestigious yearlong fellowship in Madrid. It is a quintessential modernist expat novel: Adam does very little but walk from celebrated place to celebrated place, brooding, doubting himself, half-understanding what’s said to him, and being increasingly ugly to the people around him. Typically, the expat novel is the ideal petri dish for an isolated protagonist to confront him- or herself in a lonely search for authenticity (think of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano), but as Lerner knows, that quest has become cliché. Adam grumbles that “nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is,” and that the “soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire’s packaged tours.”
The bulk of the book is about Adam’s wild insecurity. He fears that he is a fraud and that his fraudulence will be detected. He believes he might have no talent, that he received the grant due to the false ways he presents himself to others. He spends a tremendous amount of time arranging his face into appropriate positions, pretending to take notes when people are watching, and reciting memorized phrases—all in the hope of seeming intelligent.
And he is intelligent. At the heart of the book is a rather deep discussion of the function of art. As Adam sees it, art