Review: Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner)

I’m catching up on book reviews. I have finished 3 books on my holiday – far fewer than I wanted, but still not a bad number. (I’d started two of them, so really it should be higher.) This is the second one I finished: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

I started it on the train to Paris from London, and I finished it somewhere in Arizona, possibly on the flight there.

Leaving the atocha station

I enjoyed reading this book, particularly at first, but in a sort of abstract and light way. I think it is pretty problematic as an actual novel, and the narrator and characters are somewhat underdeveloped. That is probably too negative, but it is also pleasant to read. It reminds you of a novel that one of your friends would write about their experience of going abroad from the US for the first time. I know people learn going abroad for the first time from other countries, but I don’t know that they write about it or talk about it – or maybe experience it? – in the same way as Americans do. I have been wondering if it is because the myths of our society are so big and all-encompassing that we can’t imagine something not fitting inside them, until we leave and can see how small they are? Anyway, a blog for another time maybe.

My two favourite scenes are in the first 10 pages of the book. The book opens with him visiting an art museum after getting high, which he does every day, to sit and stare at the same painting. Then a guy comes in and comes in and bursts out crying in front of the painting that the narrator has been looking at, then goes into another room, bursts into tears in front of another painting, and a third. He is suspicious of the whole concept of a “profound experience of art”, in a way I found somewhat resonant (although I have had some more meaningful experiences of art… I think?):

“I had long worried that I was incapable fo having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life’, especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change.” (8)

I liked this scene, and the way he deconstructs museum experiences (see below).

The second scene I really liked is shortly after, where he meets a woman but his Spanish isn’t good enough to understand what she is saying – not fully. So he picks out random words, in a way that I found true and amusing: “Then she might have described swimming in a lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish” (14). In the next paragraph, it gets even better:

“I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change an anthology involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. 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, understood in a plurality of worlds.”

If you’ve tried to get along at a party with someone in a language you don’t know well, this is an excellent description.

This description of being an American trying not to be American is also good:

“Each member of this shadowy network resented the others, who were irritating reminders that nothing was more American, whatever that means, than fleeing the American, whatever that is, and that their soft version of self-imposed exile was just another of late empire’s packaged tours.” (49)

He is a poet, and I really liked his description of reading poetry (but really didn’t care for his method of writing, but that’s probably egoism more than anything, even though I am not a poet). So he writes like this:

“Reading poetry, if reading is even the word, was something else entirely. Poetry actively repelled my attention, it was opaque and thingly and refused to absorb me; its articles and conjunctions and prepositions failed to dissolve into a feeling and a speed; you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up; and yet by refusing to absorb me the poem held out the possibility of a higher form of absorption of which I was unworthy, a profound experience unavailable from within the damaged life, and so the poem became a figure for its outside.” (20)

I think the description on pages 90-91 of reading John Ashbery is one of the best I have read of reading poetry, and frame perfectly how I feel about reading Ashbery (which I am also doing, intermittently): “Ashbery’s flowing sentences always felt as if they were making sense, but when you looked up from the page, it was impossible to say what sense had been made” and “The ‘it’ in an Ashbery poem seemed ultimately to refer to the mysteries of the poem itself; in the absence of any stable external referent, the poem’s procedures invested its pronouns, and the ‘you’ devolved up on the reader’.” Finally, he states that the

“best Ashbery poems … describe what it’s like to read an Ashbery poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it. / You miss it, it misses you. / You miss each other.'” (91)

Another of the key things I liked, and this is a weird thing to bring up in a book review perhaps, is that it fits into a small category of media I am consuming that does interesting things with the concept of the museum. The first one that I read in this mini-genre is Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I am still processing and therefore haven’t written a review for yet. (I will.) The second was this book by Lerner. The third was a song called “All the Rowboats” by Regina Spektor. I guess what I like about all of them is the way they dwell on the social aspects of the museum – the value of art as socially assigned, rather than inherent, and how in some cases we kill the art by taking it away from this social context.

I will do a blog about this… sometime soon.

Finally, I did like some of the poetic/metaphysical writing, but I couldn’t recite or summarise any of it. Still, some good quotes:

“… I wondered if the incommensurability of language and experience was new, if my experience of my experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege, if there were happy ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, or if this division of experience into what could not be named and what could not be lived just was experience, for all people all the time. Either way, I promised myself, I would never write a novel.” (65)


“To embrace the tragic interchangeability of nouns and smile inscrutably or to find a way of touching down, albeit momentarily and be made visible by swirling condensation and debris and to know that one pole of experience is always caught up in the other but to know this finally in your body, cone of heat unfurling. To take everything personally until your personality dissolves and you can move without transition from apartment to protest or distribute yourself among a shifting configuration of bodies, saying yes to everything, affirming nothing, your own body ‘giving up / Its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape.'” (146)

But at the same time, things sort of unravel, or stagnate in the plot. Why doesn’t he go back to the museum after the scene with the profound experience of art? Why does he care so little for those around him? He is an annoying character, and he has this distance around him from the people he studies with, supposedly falls in love with, etc. But then again, who of us Americans-abroad-trying-not-to-be-the -Americans-abroad hasn’t acted with similar distance, or disregard?

In any case, I liked the way it ends, which is not really a spoiler but you might not want to know this: “Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.”

(3/5 stars)