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Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.

Read this article in Issue 16

Read other articles by Jamie Thunder

Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner


Reviewed by Jamie Thunder


Vhcle Books, Issue 16

There’s one word in any book review that immediately makes me wince: “Hilarious.”

A ‘hilarious’ book can be one of two things. It can be a tiring stand-up comedy set trapped between two covers (sorry PG Wodehouse, you just exhaust me). Or it can be something overly-clever designed to make critics stroke their chins and give a wry nodding smile. In neither case is it particularly satisfying.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Leaving the Atocha Station, the first novel by Ben Lerner, given that it had seemingly led all who came into contact with it to break out into uncontrollable guffaws. To make matters worse, it involved an alienated, bratty genius writing in the first person – which, if done badly, easily becomes an unbearably pretentious outlet for the author’s ego.

For the first 30 pages I was convinced the only saving grace of this book would be its brevity (as a poet, Lerner is certainly economical). Young poet Adam Gordon, on a scholarship year in Spain, wanders round an art gallery pontificating on the paintings and the “profound experience of art”. It’s all very clever and knowing, but a bit hollow: think Less than Zero without the wired charm.

But then something clicked. As the book continues we’re let into Adam’s life more intimately – he’s anxious and confused about his place in the world, which seems to be somewhere slightly removed from it, even when caught up in History in the Making. He questions the legitimacy of his poetry (the entire purpose of his time in Spain), which he creates by splicing Spanish dictionary translations and word association. And to make matters worse, he’s stuck in a country where he barely speaks the language and has two sort-of relationships to contend with.

It would have been easy for Lerner to slip into grey introspection, but he balances Adam’s alienation with some whip-smart observation and never loses sight of the world outside. It’s an audacious trick to pull off: Adam’s a liar and a fraud, yet by the end you’re cheering for him (or at least want to see where he ends up). What’s even more impressive is that he’s not an anti-hero: you not only want him to succeed, but think he deserves to.

That’s probably because while his company is hugely entertaining, it’s rooted in a winning but entirely recognisable self-doubt. When he lies that his mother is dead and his father is a fascist it’s not because he’s a callous cad; he told a lie for sympathy that he then had to maintain to save face. It’s pathetic, but Adam is as baffled at himself as we are, and as confused by his actions as he is by other people.

And yes, alright, it made me laugh (or least give a wry nod). Leaving the Atocha Station is Adam’s stumbling, staggering journey to finding an authentic voice, which to his own surprise he finds through his piecemeal poems. It turned out that the process didn’t matter – what was important was that it meant something to someone. And while its plot hardly registers beyond the set pieces, I closed Leaving the Atocha Station unexpectedly heartened.