When I left Ben Lerner's Atocha Station behind, I didn't know how much I'd miss the words embedded along those railroad tracks. Reading this book felt like a journey, one
I didn't want to end. But alas, like all good things, time passed along with those pages, and I finished the book.
Now I think to start, I must describe how this special book found its way into my life. Most of the time, I think the way a book finds itself to you can be just as mesmerizing as the book itself. And that's how it felt with Leaving the Atocha Station. While at my winter residency, I got to talking with a friend from my cohort about poetry, which translated to him giving me a book of Ben Lerners poetry titled Mean Free Path. The collection was complex and profound and utterly intrguing. Since I enjoyed Lerner's poetry, that same friend then bestowed Atocha to me. Factor in time for travel back to the real world and a semester's worth of new writing, and this book finally became mine to enjoy.
Lerner's protagonist, Adam Gordon, is a twenty-something American poet on a fellowship in Madrid. While I'm sure an argument can be made for Adam's detachment from his world and his actions, I never felt disconnected from this character. If anything, his contemplations toward the profundity of it all: poetry, life, writing, travel, etc. just made me that much more invested in his report of life abroad.
Now this friend who gave me this book did imbue the stark sensibility of J.D. Salinger's writing into his description of the book. And after finishing this, I agree that it can be categorized as a "post 9/11 Catcher in the Rye," if you will. That being said, it wasn't the relation to canonical literature that inspired me, but rather, this sense of voyeuristic observation that made everything crystal clear.
Throughout the course of this novel, I couldn't help but make connections to Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, Salinger's Holden Caulfield, and even Stephen Chbosky's Charlie; writers and observers and wallflowers. They left me pondering this somewhat twisted compulsion we as writers have to live within and outside ourselves and the moments we observe. That is how we find the words and the senetences and the stories. We live in moments and parcel out the most meaningful memories to inspire us.
Adam seems to struggle with this compulsion in that he doesn't want to be like everyone else; writer and traveler and practioner of poetry. He doesn't want to be that person that fills notebooks based on the sounds of a potential lover speaking Spanish, the fading light from a Cathedral, etc. But he is. When he admits "maybe only my fradulence was fradulent," it's like the lightbulb the reader needs to see the rest of the book clearly. It all comes together after this admonition, creating a beautiful blending of some of the most magnificent parts from the novel. It's as if we get to see Adam's world through his poetic filter with all of the moments that might someday become lines in a poem. It's breathtaking and dare I say, profound.
The core of the novel aims to distinuigh clear lines for these profound moments in art. Yet, what becomes more vivid than the sound of "eucalyptus," spoken in all the beauty of the English language, is that there are no clear lines when it comes to art. This notion is a bit ethereal, like it could "curl at the edges," as Adam would say. While this happens for different people at different times and in different ways, this muddled way of life made me really look at this book not only from a writer's point of view, but as someone who appreciates art as well.
So after reading this book, you might be able to fully imagine why my departure from
Atocha station was so difficult. It certainly was an exquisite read! But it also brought up feelings of nostalgia and a sense of homesickness for my own time abroad. The only way I can really describe it is hiraeth, "a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past."
Reading this book made me realize how much I desperately missed the time I spent in England back during the summer of 2010. There's something beautiful and universal about being a traveler in a place that's already been traveled before. You can feel the footsteps of all the other people who've walked there and for a minute it connects you to people you'll never meet, in much the same way that writing does. Within this book, I found memories unexpectedly, but I cherished them all the same. I don't think there's anything better than finding yourself between the pages of a book. And that's exactly what happened for me with this book.