Leaving the Atocha Station

A novel by Ben Lerner

“Utterly charming. Lerner’s self-hating, lying, overmedicated, brilliant fool of a hero is a memorable character, and his voice speaks with a music distinctly and hilariously all his own.” —Paul Auster

August 2011
6 x 9 | 186 pages
Paperback Original

Thanks to a 2013 ADA Access Improvement Grant administered by VSA Minnesota for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, this title is also formatted for screen readers which make text accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

To purchase this title for use with a screen reader please call (612) 338-0125 or email us at info@coffeehousepress.org.

ISBN: 978-1-56689-274-2.



Runner-Up for the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Winner of the 2012 Believer Book Award

Finalist for the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction)

Finalist for The New York Public Library’s 2012 Young Lions Fiction Award

Finalist for James Tait Black Prize in Fiction

UK “Best of 2012″ Lists, The Guardian

From a National Book Award finalist, this hilarious and profound first novel captures the experience of the young American abroad while exploring the possibilities of art and authenticity in our time.

Adam Gordon is a brilliant, if highly unreliable, young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, struggling to establish his sense of self and his relationship to art. Instead of following the dictates of his fellowship, Adam’s “research” becomes a meditation on the possibility of the genuine in the arts and beyond: are his relationships with the people he meets in Spain as fraudulent as he fears his poems are? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? A witness to the 2004 Madrid train bombings and their aftermath, does he participate in historic events or merely watch them pass him by?

In prose that veers between the comic and tragic, the self-contemptuous and the inspired, Leaving the Atocha Station is a portrait of the artist as a young man in an age of Google searches, pharmaceuticals, and spectacle.

Read what Lerner has to say about his novel in this essay.

Click here to read the 3:AM Magazine article, “Turning the novel on its head: a critical study of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.”


The Observer (UK) Books of the Year

Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Fiction of 2011

The New Yorker’s Best of 2011

Newsweek/Daily Beast’s Best of 2011

The Boston Globe’s Best of 2011

The Guardian’s Best Books of 2011

New York Magazine’s Best of the Year in Culture 2011

The New Republic’s Best Books of 2011

Shelf Unbound’s Top Ten of 2011

New Stateman’s Best  Books of 2011

Kansas City Star’s Top 100 Books of 2011

Hey Small Press Top 10 Books of 2011

Forward’s Most Important Works of Fiction of 2011

The Nervous Breakdown’s Best Books of 2011

Foreign Policy‘s Favorite Reads of 2011

USA Today‘s Best Small Press Books of 2011

CNN/IBN Best Books of 2011

Tin House Favorite Debuts of 2011

Oyster Book of the Week

TED blog’s Mega Summer Reading List
“[A] subtle, sinuous, and very funny first novel. . . . [Leaving the Atocha Station] has a beguiling mixture of lightness and weight. There are wonderful sentences and jokes on almost every page. Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and “conflict,” fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life. . . . But it is one of the paradoxes of this cunning book that what might seem a skeptically postmodern comedy is also an earnestly old-fashioned seeker of the real—that other thing.”—James Wood, The New Yorker

“Ben Lerner’s remarkable first novel . . . is a bildungsroman and meditation and slacker tale fused by a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice. It is also a revealing study of what it’s like to be a young American abroad.”—Gary Sernovitz, The New York Times Book Review

“One of the funniest (and truest) novels I know of by a writer of his generation. . . . [A] dazzlingly good novel.”—Lorin Stein, The New York Review of Books

Leaving the Atocha Station is a pot-fueled, poetry-soaked quest for answers to the big questions about how art and language intersects with life and experience, and the complicated question of whether one is growing more mature with time, or simply becoming more able to fake their way through adulthood.”—Publishers Weekly

“Adam should be insufferable company, but Mr. Lerner, whose previous books are poetry collections, writes so candidly and exquisitely about Adam’s falseness that the character comes to seem lovably errant. . . . Leaving the Atocha Station is a marvelous novel, not least because of the magical way that it reverses the postmodernist spell, transmuting a fraudulent figure into a fully dimensional and compelling character.” —The Wall Street Journal

“One of the strengths of Leaving the Atocha Station is how it absorbs these radical impulses without compromising narrative shape and speed…More Important, however, this blending—of perception and politics—comes right out of how Lerner sees the world in real life.”—Electric Literature

“Flip, hip, smart, and very funny . .  .  [R]eading it was unlike any other novel-reading experience I’ve had for a long time.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” Listen

“[Leaving the Atocha Station is] hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment. . . . The Guardian, “Books of the Year 2011″

“Like Lerner’s debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, this is an extremely funny book, the narrator’s neuroses providing most of the laughs.”The Guardian

“[A] remarkable first novel . . . intensely and unusually brilliant.”The Guardian

“Not only will [Leaving the Atocha Station] show you the tangle you can get yourself in; but it will encourage you to shed the insecurity that stops you from being yourself.” —The Independent

“Utterly charming. Lerner’s self-hating, lying, overmedicated, brilliant fool of a hero is a memorable character, and his voice speaks with a music distinctly and hilariously all his own.”—Paul Auster

“Ben Lerner’s first novel, coming on the heels of three outstanding poetry collections, is a darkly hilarious examination of just how self-conscious, miserable, and absurd one man can be. . . . But as Adam becomes more despicable, Lerner’s writing becomes more beautiful, funny, and revelatory.”—Deb Olin Unferth, Bookforum

“Lerner is a multi-form talent who crosses genres, modes, and media to represent a leading edge of contemporary writing.”—Contemporary Literature, interview with Lerner

“The first novel from Ben Lerner, a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, explores with humor and depth what everyone assumes is OK to overlook. . . . Ben Lerner’s phrases meander, unconcerned tourists, taking exotic day trips to surprising clauses before returning to their familiar hostels of subject and predicate. . . . [A]n honest, exciting account of what it’s like to be a fairly regular guy in fairly regular circumstances . . . [and] somehow it’s more incredible, and more modern a dilemma, than the explosives.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“In his adroitly interiorized first novel . . .  Lerner makes this tale of a nervous young artist abroad profoundly evocative by using his protagonist’s difficulties with Spanish, fear of creativity, and mental instability to cleverly, seductively, and hilariously investigate the nature of language and storytelling, veracity and fraud. As Adam’s private fears are dwarfed by terrorist train attacks, Lerner casts light on how we must constantly rework the narrative of our lives to survive and flourish.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Without being escapist and retreating into a world without terrorism or inequality, and without making outlandish claims regarding significance, Leaving the Atocha Station is fresh, funny, disturbing and, perhaps best of all, a pleasure to read as it meditates on language, poetry, the internet and the unavoidable dislocations, which is to say our shared but deeply isolating experience of everyday life.”—John Yau, Hyperallergic

“Lerner’s prose, at once precise and swerving, propels the book in lieu of a plot and creates an experience of something [main character Adam] Gordon criticizes more heavily plotted books of failing to capture: “the texture of time as it passed, life’s white machine.”—The Daily Beast

“[A] sharp and funny meditation on translation, communication, and the shallowness of artists and art despite their pretensions. Lerner creates a protagonist who—lamely romancing two Spanish women, getting high, cranking out poems he doesn’t seem to care about—is somehow both repellent and appealing. His sense of humor makes this dense and thoughtful.”—The New Republic

“[A] noteworthy debut. . . . Lerner has fun with the interplay between the unreliable spoken word and subtleties in speech and body language, capturing the struggle of a young artist unsure of the meaning or value of his art. . . . Lerner succeeds in drawing out the problems inherent in art, expectation, and communication. And his Adam is a complex creation, relatable but unreliable, humorous but sad, at once a young man adrift and an artist intensely invested in his surroundings.”—Publishers Weekly

“. . . any self-loathing poet-in-training will see himself in Lerner’s muddled protagonist — or wish he did. Plus, it’s like, the coolest indie press book going around right now.” —Flavorpill

Leaving the Atocha Station analyzes affectation—literary, artistic, persoanl—with stinging incisiveness. . . . [Adam’s] cerebral meanderings, intense perceptions, and estehtic theorizing all contribute to a strikingly seductive verbal texture. Think The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge for the 21st century and you have some idea of Lerner’s achievement.” —Rain Taxi

Leaving the Atocha Station is the kind of book that feels lived rather than composed—a post-MFA The Catcher in the Rye for professional adolescents. When I finished reading the novel, I wanted to know what Gordon was up to and had to resist the urge to look for him on Facebook and Twitter, which is a shame. I could have given his résumé a boost with an endorsement on LinkedIn.”—San Diego CityBeat

“Even though Lerner is clearly the vector for Adam’s symptoms, in Leaving the Atocha Station he artfully considers more than the life of an artist. He ponders existence in this age of . . . of . . . something, surely. . . . [Leaving the Atocha Station] hints at how we live now, in the midst of a phase of our research, inhabiting the possible space between “maybe there’s no there” and “there.” —The Quarterly Conversation

“For readers who like to contemplate sentences or consider the development of an artist, [Leaving the Atocha Station] is a delight.” —Kansas City Star

“Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is a slightly deranged, philosophically inclined monologue in the Continental tradition running from Büchner’s Lenz to Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marías. The adoption of this mode by a young American narrator—solipsistic, overmedicated, feckless yet ambitious—ends up feeling like the most natural thing in the world.—Benjamin Kunkel, New Statesman‘s Best Books of 2011

“Perhaps it’s because there’s so much skepticism surrounding the novel-by-poet that, when it’s successful, it’s such a cause for celebration. Some prime examples of monumental novels by poets and about poets (but not just for poets) are Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Now, let us celebrate another of their rank: Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.”—The Jewish Daily Forward

Leaving the Atocha Station puts Lerner among a clique of acclaimed contemporary authors—perhaps most notably Philip Roth—who deliberately blur the line between autobiography and fiction. . . . Mr. Lerner can set aside the self-doubt: Leaving the Atocha Station proves he’s a droll and perceptive observer, and a first-rate novelist.”—New York Journal of Books

“The best novel about a hash-smoking, tranquilizer-taking, womanizing Fulbright poet ever written. A slim but powerful and wickedly intelligent novel about the relationship between art and reality.”—The Nervous Breakdown, Best of 2011

“One of the most impressive things about Leaving the Atocha Station is Lerner’s depiction of what it’s like to be a young artist in the early 21st century, when technology mediates our experience to an unprecedented degree. . . Everything in Leaving the Atocha Station—art, relationships, even disaster—is subject to mediation and manipulation: ‘You can see all this from a great height and zoom out until it is no longer visible or you can zoom in on the writing hand or the face of the dead, zoom in until it’s no longer a face. Or you can click on something and drag it. You can adjust the color or you can make it black-and-white.’ In the end, however, Adam’s narrative represents the profound possibilities of art and authenticity that elude him for much of the book. The result is a hilarious and insightful account of an artist’s development in the digital age.”—Electric Literature

“I admire Ben’s poetry, but I love to death his new book, Leaving the Atocha Station. Ben Lerner’s novel . . . ‘chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling. . .’ [A] significant book.”—David Shields, Los Angeles Review of Books

Leaving the Atocha Station is, among other things, a character-driven ‘page-turner’ and a concisely definitive study of the “actual” versus the ‘virtual’ as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience. It’s funny and affecting and as meticulous and “knowing” in its execution of itself, I feel, as Ben’s poetry collections are.”—Tao Lin, The Believer

“Acclaimed poet Ben Lerner’s first novel is a fascinating and often brilliant investigation of the distance (or the communication) between experience and art. . . . Rendering its subject from just about every angle, Leaving the Atocha Station becomes something close to highly self-aware, to something poetic.”—Zyzzyva

“If Bolaño was yesterday’s drug of choice—deluding us with youth, intoxicating us with a sense of literature’s wilder, life-altering capacities—Lerner could be, should be, tomorrow’s homegrown equivalent. . . . Leaving the Atocha Station is avant slackerism as its best. It’s heartening to know that someone of my generation is writing with such heart, such head, and so personally.”—Joshua Cohen, The Faster Times

“Lerner’s novel is lean but heavy, and beautifully written, with plenty of wince-while-laughing comedic moments. A very clever inversion of postmodern fiction’s basic model.” —The Millions

“. . . Leaving the Atocha Station is as much an apologia for poetry as it is a novel. Lerner’s ability to accomplish both projects at once is a marvel. His sense of narrative forward motion and his penchant for rumination are kept in constant competition with one another, so that neither is allowed to keep the upper hand for long. Leaving the Atocha Station is a novel for poets, liars, and equivocators—that is, for aspects of us all. It is also a poem, dedicated to the gulf between self and self–ego and alter ego, “true me” and “false me,” present self and outgrown past.”—Open Letters Monthly

“[They are] poets who write fiction as a bid to enter the center of literary attention that novels nominally occupy, versus those who, through temperament or incompetence, are destined to remain ex-centric. Then there’s Ben Lerner. . . . Poetry perpetuates adolescence through its refusal to actualize. . . . [and] I’m sure there’s a poetry of the actual as well. . . . The tragicomic valley of hesitation between them is where Lerner’s novel is located.”—Jacket2

“This is far from the first novel about a young American finding himself in Europe or a young writer grappling with the problem of authenticity, but Leaving the Atocha Station transcends these tropes when Adam Gordon witnesses the Madrid train bombings of 2004, brutal reminders that the digital age is not defined only by problems of authenticity and language but also by mass violence and terror. Lerner’s novel is timely and relevant and, most importantly, a damn good book.”—Hey Small Press

“Lerner, himself an Ivy League poet and National Book Award finalist who once spent time in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship, wrestles well with absence as an event. . . . The combination of tension and languor, grounded by sensual details, recalls Javier Marías.”—Time Out New York

“One of the Top 10 of 2011. . . . [Leaving the Atocha Station] is remarkable for its ability to be simultaneously warm, ruminative, heart-breaking, and funny. Which is all to say that this book is suddenly one of my very favorites and I have a serious crush on Ben Lerner’s brain.”—Shelf Unbound

“[Leaving the Atocha Station] is compelling; it’s jarring and painful as it is darkly funny. Lerner writes with the neurotic detachment characteristic of many of his contemporaries. . . . [T] the result is funny, insightful, honest, and very entertaining.”—Explosion-Proof

“[A] remarkable book: Lerner’s depth of focus is intellectually compelling, and the protagonist’s tendency to alternate between self-congratulation and self-reproach is relatable, enjoyable, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. . . . Leaving the Atocha Station doesn’t read like a book with an axe to grind, but if it makes a point I think it’s this: that life and art are sometimes at odds, the former trivializing the latter and the latter out-dazzling the former, but that either without the other is misery. It’s been argued many times before, but rarely with such humor, candor and forgiveness.”  —Full Stop

“Well written and full of captivating ideas . . .”—Library Journal

“An extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.”—John Ashbery

“Ben Lerner incisively explores the way our own obsessive critical thinking can make us feel that our role in the world is falsified, unreal, and inauthentic, even as, without knowing it, we’re slowly growing into our future skin. Leaving the Atocha Station is a deft and meticulous reading of the development of an artist.”—Brian Evenson

“Already familiar with Lerner’s excellent poems, this book nevertheless shocks with its keenness and hilarity. A little bit Geoff Dyerish, but then entirely something else.”—Matthew Specktor

“Last night I started Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station. By page three it was clear I was either staying up all night or putting the novel away until the weekend. I’m still angry with myself for having slept.” Stacy Schiff

Leaving the Atocha Station is an addictively readable postmodern exploration of meaning and communication, and the failure of both.” Art Info

“Impenetrable Screen is at times quite poignant, and Atocha Station is canny and wickedly funny throughout. . . . [T]hese works too argue for themselves as achievements, talismanic keys attaining some degree of access to ‘life’s white machine’ and ‘desire’s buzz.’” Full Stop, “Narcissus and Ego: Poets Try the Novel”

“The writing – fluid, sharp, and fast – pulls you along, rarely stumbling. Lerner understands human interaction with unusual clarity and for the egotistical Adam, every conversation is a sparring match. . . [T]he effect is striking and, unexpectedly, comforting.” Iberosphere

“Linguistically, Leaving the Atocha Station is one of the most remarkable books I have read this year. Lerner is a poet, but this isn’t a “poetic novel”, by which I mean the kind of work where mellifluous description acts as a kind of literary toupee. Lerner’s poetry manifests itself in elegantly stilted grammar, in contradiction and self-cancellation, in painfully self-aware self-mirroring and especially in misunderstanding … The camber of Adam’s thoughts is conveyed with astonishing grace.”The Scotsman

“[A] character-driven ‘page-turner’ and a concisely definitive study of the ‘actual’ versus the ‘virtual’ as applied to relationships, language, poetry, experience. It’s funny and affecting and as meticulous and ‘knowing’ . . . It feels exciting and unprecedented. I recommend reading all of Ben’s work.”The Believer

“I did love this debut novel by a young poet . . . which takes place at the time of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings and channels W.G. Sebald in [a] way that’s far more interesting, for my money, than another Sebaldian homage published the same year.”Publishers Weekly

“I was both amused and appalled by the anti-hero of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station”The Guardian

“In his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner makes a kind of refined comedy out of his grad student narrator’s gnawing sense of his own inauthenticity.”The New Statesmen

“The sharpest and funniest novel I read this year.”The Daily Mail

“Nothing but quoting lengthy passages of various chapters could begin to convey how hilarious it is to watch [Adam] try to figure out what his new friends are saying to him.”The Leo Weekly

“I absolutely adored this book. . . . Almost every page has a dog-earable moment.”Minnesota Reads

“‘In my continued, mostly futile, campaign to offer various children, nieces and nephews an alternative to vampires and wizards,’ he wrote, ‘I’ll be giving . . . Ben Lerner’s smart, ruminative novel, Leaving the Atocha Station . . .’”The New York Times, “Inside the List”

“That this monster of overprivilege and overeducation ends up being genuinely sympathetic, and that a book that has serious questions to ask about the place of art in our virtually anesthetized world is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, are testaments to Ben Lerner’s dazzling prose, which switches effortlessly from deadpan to ironic to salty to tragic and back again.”The Millions

“I loved Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. It fits into the category I like to call ‘the perfect little novel.’”Buzzfeed, The Best Books We Read in 2012”

“[A]n impressively verisimilar account of ennui and alienation in . . . our post-9/11 world.”Bookriot

“The prose is mesmerizing . . . a fairly astonishingly large achievement of poetic voice and diction.”Circular Breathing

“In Leaving the Atocha Station the light is at first humor, of which self-deprecation and compulsive lying are the materials. . . . Lerner suggests that hope lies in the excision of self-consciousness, a less partial view of oneself.”Los Angeles Review of Books

“Indeed, we’ve often found ourselves at a loss to explain why this book is so wonderful . . . Shields gets it: the book ‘chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling.’”Flavorwire, “10 Books That Could Save Your Life”

Leaving the Atocha Station . . . uses theory’s vocabulary to describe the experience of courtship. . . . Here is the beauty of flirtation rescued from cliche by the churning of mind trained to analyze language at Brown.”Salon, “Whispering sweet post-structuralist nothings”

“In substance, and not to mince words, this is a very intelligent, very funny, verbally brilliant, relentlessly perceptive investigation of the ethical-linguistic-political morass in which the American abroad must wade. Truly tip-top.”—GQ

“This is a book that I just sort of fell into and read in one sitting and then had to read again. . . . The book operates on all these subtle levels. It’s about an American abroad but it also becomes about making art and the challenge of being authentic in art.”—Elliott Holt, NPR.org

“Leaving the Atocha Station is very much a literary work that is propelled by the strength of this character within whom we find depth beyond the expectations set by his frivolous intentions. . . . But the genius comes through, and ultimately it’s the virtuosity with which Lerner bends language to his purpose that garners our attention and even a measure of sympathy, or at least pity, for his protagonist.”—About.com

“For a novel about aimlessness, Lerner constructs a deceptively tight narrative. . . [T]he modernism and metafictional elements never stand in the way of his dry wit and a good laugh. And there are plenty of both here. “—Oyster

“In a few long walks you can read the entirety of, say, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (which I did this week—recommended!!). . . . It’s grand and hilarious, irreverent and touching.”—The Bygone Bureau

“The best, smartest novel about an American writer adrift in a foreign country to have appeared in recent memory.”—Flavorwire,50 of the Greatest Debut Novels Since 1950

Included in Bookaholic’s “Reading Abroad: Books to Read When You Don’t Speak the Language”

“Started this on a train ride upstate and couldn’t tear myself away. So special and strange.”—Tegan and Sara official website
“A deceptively slight novel that brings us too close to the mind and empty inner life of a young product of our internet-dependent, self-obsessed, woozy culture.”—Bill T. Jones, TED blog


I introduced Teresa to María José and vice versa, and Teresa let fly a barrage of compliments about my writing and said something about how wonderful it was that the foundation had brought me to Madrid. While I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, it was clear it was eloquent, that Teresa spoke not as a friend but as a self-appointed representative of Spanish Art, and that María José was impressed, if a little put off. To me María José said she had enjoyed the reading very much, she looked forward to talking with me about how my new poems related to my research about the Spanish Civil War, perhaps at one of the upcoming events where fellows would be presenting their work, and I blinked a few times and said claro. Then one of the fellows introduced herself and said she too was a poet, basically yelled it, and that she would love to have coffee sometime and talk Spanish poetry. I blinked at her as well, but, before I could say claro, Arturo was pulling me away from the group to introduce me to Tomás, who had the air of a man badly misunderstood.

We shook hands and I said I liked your reading and he thanked me but didn’t say anything back, I guess because he didn’t like my poetry and because Tomás couldn’t lie for the sake of politeness when it came to the most sacrosanct of arts. I was surprised how furious I became and how fast, but I didn’t say anything; I just smiled slightly in a way intended to communicate that my own compliment had been mere graciousness and that I in fact believed his writing constituted a new low for his or any language, his or any art.

When I felt my face had made its point, I left him without saying excuse me, walked out of the gallery, and stood a few feet apart from the other smokers and lit my own cigarette, impervious to the cold. I sensed that the other smokers were whispering about me in respectfully hushed tones, and while I knew this was less because of any particular response they’d had to my reading than because I had been presented to them as a significant foreign writer, it nevertheless felt good. Eventually one of the group approached me and introduced himself as Abel. We shook hands and he said he enjoyed the reading, then explained that his photographs were hanging in the gallery and I said, although I hadn’t really seen them, that they were excellent. Perhaps because I paid him this compliment as if my knowledge of photography were considerable, he seemed eager to demonstrate some understanding of poetry, and he began to compare my writing with a Spanish writer I didn’t know. As he grew increasingly animated another smoker joined us, and after listening for a while he began to disagree with Abel, lightly at first, then with increasing intensity. The more heated the exchange, the more rapid the speech, and the less I understood; in the afterglow of what increasingly felt like my triumphant reading, however, I had the confidence to conduct or project a translation of pure will, and I came to believe I could follow the back and forth, which had the arc and feel of debates I’d heard before.

The poet to whom Abel likened me was a reactionary, the second smoker seemed to say, and his formal conservatism was the issue of his right-wing sympathies; my writing recalled him only in its sonority, but my formal openness signaled a supple capacity to take the measure of contemporary experience quite distinct from so-and-so’s fascistic longing for some lost social unity. My work, said the second smoker, was much more reminiscent of another poet, whose name I’d never heard, who fled Franco and died in exile, a poet whose capacity to dwell among contradictions without any violent will to resolution formally modeled utopian possibility. This Abel dismissed with a wave of his cigarette as a simplistic, knee-jerk association of formal experimentation with left-wing politics, when in fact the leading Modernist innovators were themselves fascists or fascist sympathizers, and in the context of U.S. imperialism, I thought he argued, reestablishing forms of sufficient complexity and permanence to function as alternatives to the slick, disposable surfaces of commodity culture was the pressing task of poetry.

One cannot overcome the commodification of language by fleeing into an imagined past, the second smoker might have countered, which is the signature cultural fantasy of fascism, but rather one must seek out new forms that can figure future possibilities of language, which was what my work was somehow doing, unbeknownst to me, placing recycled archival materials in provocative juxtaposition with contemporary speech. We were all in one group now, the smokers, many of whom were lighting second or third cigarettes, and it was clear that I was expected to weigh in. I said or tried to say that the tension between the two positions, their division, was perhaps itself the truth, a claim I could make no matter what the positions were, and I had the sense the smokers found this comment penetrating.

I lit another cigarette to help my aperçu sink in, and in the ensuing silence I tried hard to imagine my poems’ relation to Franco’s mass graves, how my poems could be said meaningfully to bear on the deliberate and systematic destruction of a people or a planet, the abolition of classes, or in any sense constitute a significant political intervention. I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.


Listen to the audio of the review that aired on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” on Nov. 9, 2011

Listen to the MPR Midmorning interview with Ben Lerner (aired February 3, 2012)

Discussion Questions
Q1: Adam Gordon is never physically described. In fact, his name is not revealed in the text until page 36. How does this change your reading experience?

Q2: At the beginning of the novel, Adam wonders if it’s possible to have a “profound experience of art” (p. 8). How does he continue to grapple with this question throughout the novel?

Q3: The narrator’s poor Spanish often provides the reader with several possible translations for what is being said. His first conversation with Isabel (pp. 13-14) is one example. What is the effect of this?

Q4: Although Adam is a first person narrator, he spends a lot of time imagining how other people see him. How does self-consciousness define his character? Are you able to see a “true” Adam behind his constructed image?

Q5: Drug use is a prominent part of the novel. How does Adam view his own substance use (and abuse)? How do you view it?

Q6: Compare Adam’s relationships with Isabel and Teresa. What role does he imagine for each of them in his life? What role do they actually seem to play?

Q7: Adam seems to become increasingly detached and mentally unstable as the novel progresses. How is this communicated to the reader? What events or realizations push him toward further instability?

Q8: How do the March 11 train bombings change the novel’s trajectory? What did you find notable or puzzling about Adam’s reaction?

Q9: On page 144 Adam says, “Always think of the objects.” How does this statement relate to his anxiety? What other significance could it have?

Q10: In the novel’s final pages, Adam says, “Over the course of my research, I’d lost considerable weight. Other than that, I didn’t think I’d undergone much change” (p. 179). Do you agree? Can you detect an evolution of his character throughout the novel?

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