Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2011

It's about: There are a lot of wonderful little things about this novel, and I think this blurb from the back of the book just about covers them all:

"Adam Gordon is a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self and his relationship to art. What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or is it merely a projection of our desired interpretations? Instead of follwing the dictates of his fellowship, Adam's "research" becomes a meditation on the possibility of the genuine in the arts and beyond: are his relationships with the people he meets in Spain as fraudulent as he fears his poems are? A witness to the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath, does he participate in historic events or merely watch them pass by?

In prose that veers between the comic and tragic, the self-contemptuous and the inspired, Leaving the Atocha Station is a portrait of the artist as a young man in an age of Google searches, pharmaceuticals, and spectacle." Couldn't have said it better myself.

I thought: This was my favorite book I've ever received from a publisher to review on this blog. Coffee House Press is a small literary press out of Minneapolis. I advise you to take a look at their website and look at all the beautiful little books they have to offer.

Leaving the Atocha Station is the first novel by poet Ben Lerner, who has previously published three books of poetry. Sometimes I'm skeptical of poets trying to write novels because the mediums are so different - sometimes beautiful language just doesn't cut it when it comes to writing a good novel. However, Lerner not only writes beautifully, but also has a sense for the structure of the novel. The complex inner journey of Adam Gordon develops and comes to a distinct conclusion at the end of the book. The ending was wonderful.

The most brilliant thing about this book, I thought, was the parallel between language and art. Since language is not a perfect medium of communication, we can never express exactly what we want. This leaves room for interpretation that can be helped or hindered by body language, tone of voice, etc. This complicated relationship between intent and inevitable interpretive space is very similar to the way we perceive and experience art. As Adam's Spanish improved through the novel, so did his ability to navigate th4 confusing space between an artwork and the one percieving it.

I also think a large part of the reason I liked this book too was because it reminded me so much of the summer I spent in Paris in 2009. I lived alone, sulked around like Adam Gordon did, went to a lot of museums by myself, drank lots of tea and read lots of English books instead of studying French, made a fool of myself trying to speak and understand French resulting in a lot of weird/embarassing/funny/eye-opening experiences. It was a very difficult summer and I felt very isolated, alone, and discouraged. But, after reading this book, I realized that like Adam, I changed in a lot of important ways too.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I loved that this book was about an individual's personal experience with art. If you find yourself thinking about what constitutes art or literature, I think you would love this book too.

Warnings: Some language.

Favorite excerpts: "There ensued a battle between the music and my face. I was at first put off and threatened by the handsome countenances of the other listeners, faces that displayed an absorption I refused to believe was felt, each face carefully posiotioned to imply a lively interior world, faces that invited others to admire their obliviousness to others. The men tended to look down, the women slightly up; the former as if in painful concentration, the latter beatifuc, half smiling, but close to tears--everyone seemed to be having a profound experience of art. Several joints were being passed among these various private worlds and I was returning to my previous heights, losing coordination in my face, my eyes still wide but now a little too wide, the hint of smile lost and with it all suggestion of detachment."

What I'm reading next: I'm going to reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn!

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.