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Reader’s Den

Reader's Den: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, Week 2

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The author of Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner, is originally from Kansas and has a BA in political science and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He was a 2003-2004 Fulbright Scholar in Spain and he currently teaches in the English Department at Brooklyn College. Leaving the Atocha Station is Lerner's first novel, but he has several published books of poetry and critical works.

Lerner's early background closely mirrors Adam Gordon's, his main character. It also has some similarities to the path of poet John Ashbery. Ashbery also studied in Europe (Paris) on a Fulbright Scholarship and taught at Brooklyn College. The title, Leaving the Atocha Station, is from an Ashbery poem of the same name, published in 1957.

John Ashbery's writing is known for its sound, or the way the words sound together as they are read. In the novel, Adam uses the sound of a word in the Spanish language to find a replacement in English, "…I looked up the Spanish word for the English word that approximated the sound ("Under the arc of the sky" became "Under the arc of the cielo," which became "Under the arc of the cello.")"

At Adam's first poetry reading in Madrid, where he reads Under the arc of the cello, he is amazed by the performance and the supportive reaction of the crowd to the Spanish poet Tomas' moving reading. He notices everyone seems transcended by the performance, "I looked at Arturo and his face implied he was having a profound experience in art."

  • Why might the depth of the reaction of the crowd to the reading (Adam's included) surprise Adam?
  • Do you think Adam is experiencing culture shock?

For further encouragement while reading this month, check out David Shields' How Literature Saved My Life. The prologue ("In which I discuss another book as a way to throw into bold relief what this book is about") summarizes Lerner's novel and Adam's (Lerner's) experience between creating art and participating in reality. Shields writes, "I see a skewed, complex, somewhat tortured stance: an antipathy toward the conventions of the culture and yet a strong need to be in conversation with that culture." (p. 28)

Read an interesting interview with Ben Lerner by Adam Fitzgerald at Bomb Magazine (Sept. 2011). Also, try the New York Times book review by Gary Sernovitz, Lost Generations: What 'Leaving the Atocha Station' Says About America (March 9, 2012).

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