Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: "Leaving the Atocha Station" by Ben Lerner

Much like he did with his surprising second novel 10:04, Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station is a beguiling and vastly smart novel that snuck up on me and made me think very deeply about its subject matter. I recall in my review of 10:04, that the author that Ben Lerner most reminded me of was a young Paul Auster, with his many aside stories and sense of everyday mystery being something that constantly reminded me of books like The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace and Leviathan. Here, in this novel, which is a little different, his use of mass media (which he used very well in 10:04), reminded me a little bit more of Javier Marias at his most accessible, like in his novel All Souls for example. This not only has to do with his inclusion of paintings and pictures, but also the setting as well, which takes place in Madrid, Spain, the home country of Marias. But what really sets this book apart, and what had me going, was the unreliable narrator Adam Gordon, who may or may not be a stand-in for Lerner himself. He is a skilled liar, a drug-addict and a horribly neurotic person whom the reader is surprised is motivated enough to even write a poem, let alone be successful enough to give readings at big events. Through this scoundrel, Lerner is able to expound on such varied topics as mortal culpability, the short half-life of love and lust, and the rather shallow world that many artists and creative types begrudgingly inhabit. It begins in an art gallery, where Adam claims he is at to do research, but the reader doesn’t know for sure if that is the truth. While there, he witnesses a man viewing a painting burst into tears. The feeling he has while watching is one of profound jealousy, since he is so far off from having a genuine reaction to art. We are witness to a few scenes that tell us a little bit about him, from his friends Teresa and Arturo, both intellectuals like him who lack the depth they so fashionably put forward, and a girl named Isabel, who he claims to be in love with, but consistently fails to fully commit to her. The true joy in this novel is all the lies, big and small, that seem to come out of Adam’s mouth. From the big ones, like lying to Isabel about his mother being dead, and stealing a friends harrowing story of watching someone die to gain sympathy point from Teresa so he can sleep with her, to small ones, like lying about having seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. These lying episodes, brought on by a lack of empathy or the drugs he is taking, show the hollowness of the world around Adam and how comfortably he fits into such a miserable world, a world that comes tumbling down when he finds himself a victim of the real life 2004 Madrid Bombings. This book is at times infuriating, but it cast a certain spell on me, and I felt I was in the hands of a brilliant young writer with vision and originality.

Rating: 5/5

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