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Leaving the Atocha Station

An impostor in Madrid

Ben Lerner’s pot smoking, pill popping protagonist Adam is an endearing, hilarious and vulnerable anti-hero whom I immediately warmed to. On a poetry fellowship to Spain from Kansas, Adam comes weighed down with self-doubt. His knowledge of Spanish is negligible, his skills as a poet questionable. Adam self-medicates to the point that much of his life has become an out-of-body experience. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner had me in stiches, but just like Adam’s experience of life, this book has layers and layers of meaning, some hilarious, some profound, many of them both.

Adam has earned a poetry fellowship at a Spanish institution to write a ‘long, research-driven poem exploring the [Spanish Civil] war’s literary legacy’. He’s not even sure what this means. He hides his scant knowledge of Spanish behind a screen of aloofness and monosyllabic speech. Everyone assumes he’s a genius. In fact, Adam feels like the biggest impostor around and dreads the moment he’s found out. All you want to do is give him a big hug.

‘…I wondered, as we walked past the convents and gift shops, how long I could remain in Madrid without crossing whatever invisible threshold of proficiency would render me devoid of interest.’

Adam is desperately trying to shed his ‘Americanness’, he wants to be a sophisticated, intellectual European; he wants to distance himself from the America involved in the Iraq war (this is 2004), of which he’s constantly reminded by everyone he meets. Being someone else is not so easy, though, and is, above all, utterly exhausting.

But how reliable is Adam as a narrator? And how bad is his poetry really? Leaving the Atocha Station is an exploration of purpose and meaning, of finding oneself despite oneself, of youthful insecurities and most of all, the vulnerability of being an artist.

Lerner’s writing feels like a mix between Jonathan Franzen’s and Dave Eggers’, not bad for a debut novel. His next, 10:04, now has a prominent place in my reading pile.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner is published by Granta, 181 pages.

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