The people at Coffee House Press in Minneapolis were kind enough to send me a copy of Leaving the Atocha Station so that I could review it here. Coffee House Press is a non-profit book publisher so I was very grateful. The book was not an easy read and I was equally grateful for the challenge. The book is Ben Lerner’s first novel.
The book focuses on Adam, a young man in Spain traveling on a Fulbright Scholarship. Adam has many issues but the one most apparent to me was his inability to see himself as anything more than a complete fraud. He is often gripped by paranoia and worries that he will be stripped of his achievements and shipped back to America with the rest of us pretentious yet lazy sloths. He nervously avoids his foundation contact, not returning phone calls or emails. He tries to think of ways he can avoid having to do readings or appear on panels because of this paranoia. Instead, he pops some pills, smokes another spliff and does a lot of people watching while scribbling a few lines of poetry. The reader doesn’t really know if Adam is truly a fraud or just the victim of drug-induced anxiety and paranoia.
Adam may feel like a fraud because he is a desensitized poet. While standing in a gallery in front of a work of art, he waits to have what is known as “a profound experience of art”. This experience doesn’t come and he perhaps questions his qualifications as a poet. Poets are expected to be emotionally charged and full of feeling for all things art. If one cannot be moved by the power of art visually, how are they qualified to move people through word? On the other hand, Adam knows that so much of the art world and how we rate, judge, experience, create and curate it is essentially bullshit. He doesn’t want to be that sort of fraud either. He doesn’t want to be that person who stands in front of a painting, is overcome with emotion, has a profound experience of art but then doesn’t understand why. There is something that feels really fake about that to Adam. One would suggest Adam strip away his cocktail of drugs and experience art with a fresh perspective, but then do people always experience art straight or do drugs often help people to experience art on a higher level? Every choice Adam makes is meticulous and thought through, but often times probably not the right choice. As a reader I struggled with the feeling of wanting to pull Adam by the hair through the pages of my book and smack him into reality yelling, “Get over it!”
Lerner himself traveled in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship and studied poetry. It is probably a safe bet that Lerner experienced a lot of the same inner conflict that Adam did and then decided to write about it. Another main theme of the book is Adam’s desire to be fully assimilated into the Spanish culture. He really hates to see the tourists, American especially, behaving in the way they do and is basically ashamed of his own country. At the same time, he does think about Kansas and it is apparent he misses home on occasion. But for the most part, Adam vows to only speak Spanish while in Spain and desires to not be thought of as some spoiled American rich kid although this is essentially what he is since mom and dad are well off and he does have a credit card to use “for emergencies”. Even though this is what he is, he creates a persona for himself that would suggest otherwise. He wants people to think he worked hard to be where he is, that the opportunity wasn’t just handed to him. He tells women that his mother is dead and describes his soft-spoken lefty dad in a way that would make people think he is a dictator. The whole time this is happening Adam knows he is making a mistake and the reader struggles to understand why Adam has to make life so hard for himself. But this is what a poet is. The crux of their art is about conflict, pain, regret, etc. Adam is living what I suspect is a “normal” emotional life for a poet. It must be exhausting.
Throughout the book I found myself wanting to like Adam, but I could not. When the 2004 Madrid train bombing happens and his friends are all organizing to go out and protest, Adam is lazy. He doesn’t get into it. He wants to be fully assimilated but he never will be because he is so desensitized. And it is not because he is on the tranquilizers, he truly seems apathetic. The reader wonders if Adam ever will build a solid relationship with either of the female love interests he is currently having a dalliance with or if he will be apathetic about that as well. The reader waits to see if Adam will crash and burn, ruining everything from relationships to his reputation as a poet or if he will figure it out and pull it together, becoming a great success?
How the book ends isn’t too important. Although I couldn’t wait to get to the end to see, the book is really about more than just if Adam completes his “project” successfully. It is about the way of an artist and the pressure of an artist. Traveling in a strange land on someone else’s dollar and feeling worthy of it. Missing home but reluctant to return back to a place you see as lacking a true, rich culture one can revel in. Feeling guilty you don’t miss mom and dad as much as you probably should and most importantly, becoming an adult and realizing you need to make real choices about your future, your happiness depending on it.
The book is very well written and is not an easy read. This isn’t the kind of book you slip into your bag and read poolside while trying to keep and eye on the kids swimming. This is the kind of book you chip away at page by page. You stop to do a lot of reflection and you re-read many sentences because they can be read differently and interpreted in new ways. And that itself is poetry, making this a very beautiful (yet oftentimes painful) book.