Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner

If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak. I could lie about my interest in the literary response to war because by making a mockery of the notion that literature could be commensurate with mass murder I was not defaming the victims of the latter, but the dilettantes of the former, rejecting the political claims repeatedly made by the so-called left for a poetry radical only in its unpopularity.

It’s clear early on that either the insufferably narcissistic poet that centers this story will either redeem himself or not — and either possibility could be frustrating. On a fellowship in Madrid, Adam seems determined to squander the opportunity, refusing to really participate in the program or learn Spanish. Yet he also insists on only speaking Spanish with the friends he makes, especially the two women he passively tries to woo, convinced that he can hide his insecurity behind the language barrier. His early immersive conversations are some of the most charming parts of the book, as he relates all the possibilities of what people might be saying, based on the few words he can understand, “I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.”

Even after witnessing the aftermath of the 2004 train bombing, Adam continues to flail, purposefully losing friends in the protests that followed the bombing to wander alone. The political aspect of the bombings as a plot feature feels weak, though it’s likely to the story’s benefit. Instead Lerner focuses more on Adam’s obsession with authenticity and his largely self-imposed sense of loneliness. It’s a rather quiet novel where large parts of the narrative are mere banalities, though Lerner’s use of language is engaging enough to compensate.

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