Explosion-Proof Review: Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Early in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon, a young American poet on fellowship in Spain, is on a camping trip with a group of Spaniards. He is high, his Spanish is weak, and he is trying to follow a story one of the girls is telling. “[I]t was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords,” he says.

This is Lerner’s first novel and at every turn, there are chords. Adam’s time in Spain is refracted through a language barrier, through his artistic insecurities, and through hefty doses of hash, pot, and prescription tranquilizers. What results is a narrative we are not so much meant to piece together as view through a haze. In the camping scene, for example, Adam hears the girl’s story like this:

Her uncle had died in a car crash a year ago today in a street in Salamanca; she had helped have her junky boyfriend hospitalized over the summer and now he wouldn’t see her and had moved to Barcelona; her parents, who lived in a small town, were having their home foreclosed upon and she had been sorting through boxes of childhood toys; she had broken with a sibling over the war.

Like Lerner’s poetry, Leaving the Atocha Station strives for linguistic and narrative precision, but is ultimately all approximation. Memories and events are unfixed, romantic relationships go unconsummated, there is a general sense of malaise, Adam wanders a great deal through cities, and any conclusion regarding whether or not the trip was beneficial to Adam or his project, whether or not it was worth it (worth what?), gets postponed and postponed.

But for all this, the story is compelling; it’s jarring and painful as it is darkly funny. Lerner writes with the neurotic detachment characteristic of many of his contemporaries. I go first to Bolaño, who was also a poet, for the obsessive inwardness, and then to Tao Lin (though Lin’s prose is sparser), for the ability to convey such loss and alienation through, among other modern things, instant message transcripts. In fact, the scene in Atocha where Adam’s friend, Cyrus, via instant messenger, relates a horrific story about a woman he saw drown in Mexico, is reminiscent of a poem in Lin’s collection, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, in which a friend describes, via gchat, a swarm of ants he saw kill a slug.

For the most part, though, Leaving the Atocha Station is wholly Lerner’s. Near the end of the novel, Adam is at a party, high again, all of his anxieties coming together in him. A different girl talks to him this time, and while he is conscious of what she is saying and that he is responding to her, what he understands comes entirely from within. His Spanish has improved significantly after nearly a year in Spain, and Adam hears the chords in the speech of others less and less, but he has internalized them more than ever and these collide to make for some of the most beautiful passages in the book:

…what I heard her whispering was something like: To join lips to express affection or as part of insufflation. To click the teeth while making love or trying to form a seal between your mouth and the victim’s or to place the tongue between your teeth to pronounce the z of Zalacaín or to place a tooth beneath a pillow or the bracelet made of baby teeth her grandma had. To attempt to move from one language into another without rotation or angular displacement and to fail in that attempt and call your father from a pay phone weeping or to weep before a painting so one can think of pay phones and of paintings as the same.

Leaving the Atocha Station dwells in these failures of language—Adam often finds himself, either for the language barrier or the drugs, at a loss for words and the refrain, “poems aren’t about anything,” is repeated again and again—but it speaks where and how it can and the result is funny, insightful, honest, and very entertaining. —Amanda Calderón

Amanda Calderon is an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU and the publicity assistant for Persea Books. Her work has appeared in Wag’s Revue. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

You can follow her on Twitter at @amcalderon.

Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College. Lerner is a contributor to Explosion-Proof Magazine. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: