Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is another contemporary novel that draws on significant events that have been shaping the twenty-first century. It is set in Madrid in 2004. Adam Gordon, the first-person narrator and protagonist, is a young American poet who is staying in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship. The novel opens with him making one of his regular visits to the Prado, where he has been studying Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross.

According to Wikipedia,

The emotional impact of the weeping mourners grieving over Christ’s body, and the subtle depiction of space in van der Weyden’s work have generated extensive critical comments, one of the most famous being, that of Erwin Panofsky: ‘It may be said that the painted tear, a shining pearl born of the strongest emotion, epitomizes that which Italian most admired in Early Flemish painting: pictorial brilliance and sentiment.’

In the actual novel, Lerner provides a black and white close-up of the man weeping over Christ’s dead body.

When Adam arrives at the painting, he finds a man standing in the place he usually occupies. Stopping a distance away, Adam has the uncanny feeling that he is observing himself. Although he is not, this perception clearly conveys the acute sense of self-alienation Adam continues to experience, an experience that may be exacerbated by the drugs Adam freely consumes. Nevertheless, Adam’s profound sense of disconnect, of always feeling removed from his experience, expresses a contemporary malaise.

In contrast to Adam, the man studying the painting begins sobbing. While Adam is shocked, he is also envious of the man’s intense emotional experience because Adam is not able to be moved by art in this profound way. This introduces one of the major themes of the novel: Learner questions art’s ability to perform such a function, especially within a political context. Can art or poetry still move people to action?

Adam meets up with another young man who runs an art gallery. His sister, Teresa, becomes the translator of Adman’s poems. These are fragments of Fredrick Garcia Lorca’s poetry Adam has translated, interspersed with other fragments of his own writing. Of course Adam and Teresa become romantically involved although a certain distance in their relationship is maintained.

The title of the novel refers to the climax of the narrative when the Madrid Atocha metro station was bombed by terrorists, killing 191 people and wounding nearly 2,000. This tragedy intensifies Adam’s sense that art is irrelevant in today’s world. He believes that what is needed is direct political action and that poetry or art for that matter can no longer rouse people to act. Because of the attention he gets as a poet, Adam feels like a fraud — his feelings of unworthiness seem to be compounded by his being American and deeply ashamed of the Bush administration. By the end of the novel, however, he has succeeded in getting a book of his poetry published and meeting the requirements of fellowship. The chapbook

was wonderfully made, its quality anachronistic, befitting a dead medium.

Considering all the relevant issues that Lerner raises, the trite, happy ending is a disappointment. Adam plans “to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by [his] friends.”

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