The book has its virtues - the Spanish characters are quite well sketched, the narrator's character and motivations and behavior are quite believable, and the "poetic" passages are effective. The main problem for me is that the narrator is such an unappealing character - really hard to stomach. I found it hard to keep going. I know it isn't a fair reason for downgrading the book; I suppose I am rating my enjoyment of it rather than my judgement of its artistic merits.
In his blurb, Jonathan Franzen says this book isn't like anything he can remember reading. Surely you can't mean that, Jonathan. The days and nights of a young, literature-obsessed man recording his life in a foreign city, Lerner's book has many precedents, from 'The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge' to early Nabokov novels such as 'Mary' or 'The Gift' to Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' to the hundred pages of journal entries that open Bolaño's 'Savage Detectives.' James Wood adds to this list Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Classics) (a book I haven't read) and places Lerner's novel in the flâneur tradition. No, we've definitely been here before. And while this Madrid-set story cannot live up to the weirdly extravagant praise it's received, it has many of the trademarks of those earlier works--the obvious autobiographical dimension, the spartan surroundings, the rootlessness, the oceans of free time, the impulsive actions--and does a good job of updating the genre to the digital era.
Baudelaire envisioned the flâneur as someone who drops himself into the life swarming around him (what Lerner nicely calls the "white machine"), not taking part but passionately witnessing it, in order to create his art. Lerner's stand-in, Adam Gordon, walks plenty of city streets and does witness the terrorist attack on Atocha Station and, only days later, the national elections that galvanized Spain in 2004, but the bulk of the book is spent pondering a lack of feeling in himself that even he finds strange. He doesn't feel pain but, instead, "the shape of pain." He is almost unbearably self-conscious and keeps bumping up against an old-world (often feminine) sensibility for which he is no match. He attempts to give blood after the station's bombing but, due to his drug-taking, is turned down--even his blood is no good! Despite all the evidence that he is not human, of course he does end up feeling and living; he can't help it. The lyric becomes the dramatic.
Assume the stereotype and embrace it: I can't enumerate how many ways this book speaks to me, something I've been ever hesitant to say (for fear I might ever change my mind) but I feel obligated to say something as this is my first book review ever. If you've ever been 'the American' abroad and have been unsure how to feel about it...well 'Leaving Atocha Station' vocalizes that feeling better than how you felt it. A multi-faceted ambiance in essence, existential tendencies carry this poetic narrative throw the winding streets of Madrid, the railways of Spain, seamlessly in and out of memories both past and future, hipster American shame abroad etc. etc. Adam's shoes are those worn in the quest for authenticity.
"Jim Dixon lives!" I thought happily when I started this short book. The acerbic and hilarious descriptions of the unpleasant protagonist's inner mind are insightful and very well conveyed and I hoped it was to be a Lucky Jim styled chronicle of an outsider and misfit in Spanish literary circles. But no; too quickly the book fell into exactly the sort of theorising and analysis of language that would have driven Jim Dixon to despair. In the end the protagonist is completely unsympathetic and suffers all the pretensions that seem to be skewered early on. Perhaps this is ironic in a post-modern way; that still makes my point, I think. All in all, a disappointment.
I loved this book. It is witty. It is smart. It is well-written. It rings true. I couldn't put it down. My background is similar to the author's (spent some time in Madrid at the same time, grad school, professor, etc.), so this book made sense to me on another level. Even if you do not have a similar background, the work should appeal to those who are looking for an intellectual read.
Adam, the poet/slacker with a fellowship in Madrid at the center of Leaving The Atocha Station, is an off-putting jerk - but take a closer look. Under the guise of his hashish and tranquilizer fueled narration is a well written and sharply observant novel that explores academia's most on trend obsessions. Both the women in Adam's life insist that he is fluent in Spanish. Yet we see him struggle with every level of impairment to comprehension imaginable - his drug habits, the lies he dishes out and takes,the pretentiousness of academia and his participation in it, his projections about his own situation. At one point, he is reduced to being a mere tourist lost in a strange landscape. It's stunning and a little contrived that he's convinced anyone, madrilenos or no, of his poetic ability.
What do we expect from language? What are its limits? What does fluency in a language mean? How do we comprehend? And what's going to happen when his parents get the bill for the fancy restaurant and jewelry?
I recommend this novel, it's amusing, and reminded me of why I'm not in academia. Please consider a three a true endorsement because I find many newly released novels unreadable.