Leaving the Atocha Station is a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice … Adam Gordon, a poet, having bluffed his way into a fellowship in Madrid, makes friends, struggles with Spanish, smokes hash, wanders around, writes poetry, doubts poetry and has two low-energy love affairs. But the real action of the novel is interior … Adam Gordon is comically incompetent, getting lost in Spain’s history, language and occasionally its streets. Yet Spaniards react to Gordon’s foolishness with amused mercy … The ultimate product of Gordon’s success is the novel itself. It is also a strengthening poetry that we rarely see but intuitively, like the Spaniards in the novel, admire.
Adam—at once ideological and post-ideological, vaguely engaged and profoundly spectatorial, charming and loathsome—is a convincing representative of twenty-first-century American Homo literatus … The book’s persistent question is: If Adam Gordon were able to summon himself into authenticity, would there be anything to see? Are we in fact constituted by our inauthenticities? … But, if Adam stopped pretending that he was only pretending to be a poet, he would have to write some poems, and confront questions of talent and of vocation … Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict,’ fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life.
As in a video game, it’s not exactly what happens that counts: what’s important is how deeply you’re drawn into the world of the game, how transfixed you become. Adam is drawn deeply into his new world, and into his own thoughts. So are we: there’s tremendous verisimilitude in this short novel, and a pace that feels oddly familiar … mere moments after the transports of art have been acknowledged as possible, the idea that they might lead anywhere good – or bring any moral uplift or change in character – is quickly dismissed. There’s no evidence here that art, and therefore poetry, can save us … His anxiety and poses have just been a way of elaborating and extending himself, a drug more potent than his pot or his pills. Adam is not a poem. He’s a person. The American ideal of freedom and self-invention has its limits; he’s a product of his context and class.
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 … 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 … While the book clearly belongs to the modernist tradition, it is fiercely contemporary—not only in the pulsing presence of the Internet and antidepressants, but also in Adam’s assertion that one must wade through countless layers of fraudulence if one is ever to reach anything that feels truthful.
I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station, which is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clef references … If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop … The very nature of language itself is a major part of Adam’s problem; he’s unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a close approximation of the incomprehensible human flux … If Ben cares about ‘the arts,’ it’s only to measure the distance between his experience of the actual works and the claims made on their behalf.
Lerner's offbeat little novel manages to convey what everyday life feels like before we impose the structure of plot on our experience … Almost everything that happens here happens inside the main character's head, which runs day and night like one of those loop-the-loop computer screen savers, constantly generating digressions, fibs, self-criticisms and doubts … Adam's thoughts don't so much resolve themselves into conclusions; they simply dissolve into other thoughts: thoughts about the authenticity of our connection to art and to other people; thoughts about the wobbly nature of reality … The fact that I liked this novel as much as I did is entirely due to the fluidity of Lerner's words and to the wit of his musings.
Ben Lerner’s first novel is a fascinating and often brilliant investigation of the distance (or the communication) between experience and art … He claims again and again, to the reader and to the other characters, that poetry isn’t about anything, and that any time the word ‘poet’ comes up to describe him it is a derogatory or unjust description, as if Adam were always out-of-body, always seeing himself from across the room … We zoom from the relatively singular experience of the poet struggling with his own value system to a contemporary examination of ‘experiencing’ disaster or war second-hand. The perpetual numbness Adam has felt during most of the novel becomes a quality shared by society at large when it follows traumatic events on the news.
Leaving the Atocha Station is not another conventional, autobiographical novel told in the first person. For one thing, Gordon is too unreliable and self-lacerating, too given to exaggeration and lying, too addicted to prescription pills, and often too stoned to be considered remotely trustworthy … Leaving the Atocha Station interrogates the familiar claim to sincerity that propels autobiographical narratives toward their Chrysalis Moment, where the narrator, the ‘I’, experiences a cataclysmic realization on the road to Damascus (or Darien), and emerges a changed being...If this ‘I’ ever existed, it is one that Gordon, Lerner and this reader at least have seldom if ever, experienced … Without being escapist and retreating into a world without terrorism or inequality, and without making outlandish claims regarding significance, Leaving the Atocha Station is fresh, funny, disturbing and, perhaps best of all, a pleasure to read as it meditates on language, poetry, the internet and the unavoidable dislocations.
Leaving the Atocha Station features a narrative voice both detached and almost painfully forthcoming, photographs with odd and often humorous captions, and hash, a surprising amount of hash … That his fear of being seen as a fraud causes him to behave with extraordinary fraudulence accounts for much of the humor in this (often very funny) novel … One of the most impressive things about Atocha Station is Lerner’s depiction of what it’s like to be a young artist in the early 21st century, when technology mediates our experience to an unprecedented degree … Everything in Atocha Station — art, relationships, even disaster — is subject to mediation and manipulation.
Ben Lerner’s debut novel is funny, uplifting and moving. This is quite an achievement, given that the plot of this slim volume covers nothing more ambitious than a few months in the the aimless, drugs-and-caffeine fuelled life of a dislikeable young American living in Madrid … Lerner’s genius, though, is to put into words that universal, often-lost period when most young people are commitment-free but weighed down with a fragile, serious sense of the nascent self. Nobody in this book wears their learning lightly, while unfortunate Adam is both pretentious and hopeless at the practical skills of life.
Although the character is stagnant, the language is not. Ben Lerner's phrases meander, unconcerned tourists, taking exotic day trips to surprising clauses before returning to their familiar hostels of subject and predicate. Language itself becomes possibility … Because so much of the story takes place in the subjective terrain of Adam's head, it's strange when objective reality intrudes, in the form of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The inclusion of current events is inorganic infiltration … Until the bomb, the story was willing to languish in its mundanity, to unpack the familiar contents of its etceterism, and it figured as an honest, exciting account of what it's like to be a fairly regular guy in fairly regular circumstances.