FICTION REVIEW: "Leaving the Atocha Station"

  • Article by: MAX ROSS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2011 - 12:12 PM

A disaffected American poet in Spain tries to care about a train bombing.

Ben Lerner

A lot can be crammed into an et cetera. Airplane, suitcase, bomb, etc.; boy, girl, keg, Plan B, etc. The words themselves, of course, are packaged tightly, reduced to three essential letters. If there's a modern preoccupation with et cetera, it may be an Internet thing -- we love information and abbreviation equally. We are savvy. We only require half the story to infer the whole thing.

Adam Gordon, an American poet living in Spain, is a savvy, etc.-prone guy. His Madrid is drugs, museums, a couple of local women, and so on. He's carved out daily routines -- medicating, writing, napping -- that strain his existence minimally. And yet, though mostly confined to his apartment, he wants to be expansive. In public he accumulates false selves; endeavoring to get laid, his favorite tactic is to lie about his mother, back home in Topeka, having died, which event he then fully, hilariously imagines and feels guilty about.

Much of the book's power is derived from realizing that despite his efforts, Adam knows he's an et cetera, too: artist, medicated, disaffected, wandering.

Although the character is stagnant, the language is not. Ben Lerner's phrases meander, unconcerned tourists, taking exotic day trips to surprising clauses before returning to their familiar hostels of subject and predicate. Language itself becomes possibility, and Adam realizes this whenever, with his incomplete Spanish, he deciphers a woman's words: "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." But, lacking true comprehension, possibility is limited to things he already knows: "My first projections borrowed almost entirely from Spanish cinema: Rufina and Isabel were lovers, Rufina maybe a transvestite ... soon Rufina would return with a knife wet with Isabel's blood, etc."

Because so much of the story takes place in the subjective terrain of Adam's head, it's strange when objective reality intrudes, in the form of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The inclusion of current events is inorganic infiltration. Suddenly Adam is affected by things -- he gains ambition, develops attachments -- and this feels unnatural. After all, Adam was on America's East Coast during 9/11; terrorism for him, as for many of his generation, should be no big deal.

Until the bomb, the story was willing to languish in its mundanity, to unpack the familiar contents of its etceterism, and it figured as an honest, exciting account of what it's like to be a fairly regular guy in fairly regular circumstances. Thankfully this comprises the book's bulk, and somehow it's more incredible, and more modern a dilemma, than the explosives.

Max Ross, a former staff writer for the Rake, currently lives in New York.

  • related content

  • LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION

    By: Ben Lerner.

    Publisher: Coffee House Press, 184 pages, $15.

    Review: The first novel from Ben Lerner, a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, explores with humor and depth what everyone assumes is OK to overlook.

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