Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner is one of my new favorite books, hands down.

I blogged earlier about the narrator – he is definitely what makes the book as good as it is.

To summarize, Adam is a poet on a fellowship in Spain, and does a lot of nothing while he writes poetry. He befriends someone who begins to translate his work into Spanish, and he tries to pretend like he can’t speak Spanish fluently, although by the end, his friend/translator Teresa tells him he can live in the language. While Adam is in Spain, a terrorist attack blows up one of the trains at the Atocha station. Is Adam now part of history, or does he just watch it go by, and sometimes write about it? After all, it isn’t really his country.

Overall, Adam tries to define himself in a language he is not initially comfortable with, and finds that through his “mistakes” in speaking, he can create any sort of life he wants. He tells his friend Isabel (and some others) that his mom is dead, but then later says she is just sick (which is also a lie) and makes the excuse that he didn’t know how to convey his words correctly, and that he thought if he told people she was dead it would make it easier when she actually died. He repeatedly tells people that his poetry isn’t about anything, but by the end he discovers he is able to make a statement and defend his writing at a panel with other Spanish writers. It seems that, despite his hard work not to, he actually created something worth value while on his fellowship. The book ends at a party celebrating his and Teresa’s book, with Adam’s original poems and Teresa’s translations.

The thing I loved most about Adam and what made him so believable was his preoccupation with how people saw him. He felt he had to look the part of the poet, look interested when people spoke to him in English, and look haughty to hide his confusion when people spoke too fast in Spanish. He is so concerned about how to arrange his face to convey a certain meaning and is obsessed with other people’s reactions to the stories he tells. If a friend doesn’t react the way he predicts during a conversation, Adam immediately begins to overanalyze the situation (which is something I can relate to!) and tries to justify in his head why his thought was so profound/deep/stupid and why the reaction wasn’t sympathetic/disgusted/understanding enough.

And of course, like all college students trying to find meaning in the world, Adam drinks a lot, smokes a lot, and takes his “white pills” a lot. This adds another layer of reality to the story, because Adam is fuzzy, we as readers get to experience that along with him and see the different ways he views or thinks about things while high or drunk.

This book was fantastic – I highly recommend it. If you want to know more about why it’s so great from people who are paid to review, check out the list of praise here.


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