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Leaving the Atocha Station Paperback – August 23, 2011

3.6 out of 5 stars 115 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Finalist for the 2013 James Tait Black Prize in fiction

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

Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Fiction of 2011
The New Yorker’s Best of the Year in Culture 2011
Newsweek/Daily Beast’s Best of 2011
The Boston Globe’s Best of 2011
The Guardian’s Best Books of 2011
Shelf Unbound’s Top Ten of 2011
New Stateman’s Best Books of 2011

The Huffington Post "Yet Another Year-End List"
The Guardian, "book I wish I'd published" by Canongate publisher Jamie Byng
Work in Progress, "FSG's Favorite Book of 2012"

“[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. . . .”—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 . . . Lerner is concerned with ineffability, but Adam Gordon (and the author) fight back with more than words . . . The ultimate product of Gordon's success is the novel itself." -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

“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”

“[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. . . . —Jonathan Franzen in The Guardian’s Books of the Year 2011

"[A] remarkable first novel . . . intensely and unusually brilliant."—The Guardian

"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

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

“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] 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.”—Publishers Weekly

“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. . . . Lerner’s writing [is] beautiful, funny, and revelatory.”—Deb Olin Unferth, Bookforum

“. . . 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

“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

"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

“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

“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

"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

"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

“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

“[Leaving the Atocha Station is remarkable for its ability to be simultaneously warm, ruminative, heart-breaking, and funny.”—Shelf Unbound

“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

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

“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

“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

"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, is painfully self-aware self-mirroring and especially in misunderstanding ... The camber of Adam's thoughts is conveyed with astonishing grace."—The Scotsman

"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 Statesman

"The sharpest and funniest novel I read this year."—The Daily Mail, chosen by Craig Brown

"I really liked Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. . . .It is incredibly smart. It's terrifying how smart this author is."—Miami Herald, "What are you reading now?" with Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins

"The prose is mesmerizing...a fairly astonishing large achievement of poetic voice and diction."—Circular Breathing

"[An] impressively verisimilar account of ennui and alienation in...our post-9/11 world."—Bookriot, "Read This Then That"

"Leaving the Atocha Station gets to the heart of this fact of our existence. It captures the complex relationship we have with art, with faith, with love, and with life, and it does so with wit, honesty and grace."—The Huffington Post

"Leaving the Atocha Station, an American-abroad novel by the poet Ben Lerner, reaches 'for what cannot be disclosed or confessed in narrative."—The New York Times, mention in "The Wayward Essay"

"The two achievements that push Leaving the Atocha Station into must-read territory are its antihero narrator and the almost kinetic nature of its prose...[T]he author fills the pages with an electric, commanding prose that turns into everything the reader needs."—Verbicide

"'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, ruminating novel, Leaving the Atocha Station...'"—The New York Times, "Inside the List"

"That 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, "A Year in Reading: Paul Murray"

"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"

"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

“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,“Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald"

"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,“Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and W.G. Sebald"

About the Author

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979, Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. He has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 186 pages
  • Publisher: Coffee House Press; Second Printing edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566892740
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566892742
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (115 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #29,195 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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This is either a great novel, or one of the great literary hoaxes of all time . . . and I can't decide which. The writing is excellent, and if you're in the mood to increase your vocabulary, you'll love the language. But as I read, I kept wondering if this wasn't a super in-joke dreamed up by some Creative Writing grad student to demonstrate that it's entirely possible to write hundreds of pages without ever really writing about anything. True, we spend lots of intense time in the protagonist's drug-nicotine-alcohol frazzled brain, mostly worrying about whether the experience we're experiencing is the real experience, or if it's a reflection of someone else's experience of experiencing us experiencing them (or something like that). But as far as a real "story" goes--spoiled American student goes to Madrid to work on his poetry and discovers they speak a foreign language there. He maybe falls in love; he maybe writes some poems; he maybe grows up a little. Sort of a coming-of-age story about someone who doesn't ever come of age.

The cynic in me just couldn't stop feeling like I was being had. Yet, I enjoyed the read. "Leaving the Atocha Station" will either end up being required reading for Lit students, or it will fade away like one of the protagonist's many hangovers.
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James Woods recommended this book in The New Yorker. It's not unlike others he's liked: minutely observed, finely articulated novels featuring troubled men, alone, wandering about in major cities: O'Neill's Netherland, Cole's Open City, Dyer's Jeff in Venice, etc. I like them all too -- they are very intelligent, shrewd books -- but there is something tremendously sad about all of them, too. They share the theme of what I'll call the Unrealized, and it is utterly relentless. A sort of impotence of the soul that itself is an aesthetic, a philosophy, a zeitgeist. One can appreciate these novels for their accomplishment and their intelligence, but it's really very hard to care about them, their characters, and certainly one can't imagine re-reading them.
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Ben Lerner's debut novel has been cast as a philosophical meditation on art, as seen through his narrator's, Adam Gordon's, eyes while on a poetry fellowship in Madrid. Adam moves through the Spanish streets, in Madrid and farther afield, and ends up wandering through museums, dating a gallery owner, visual artist and poet, partaking in a public panel on "Literature Now," and, albeit unwillingly, reading his poetry to the crème de la crème of Madrid's art and literature scene. But more than the art itself, the import of Lerner's novel lies in Adam himself and the way he uses art, among other things, as a way to experience the inexplicable world and, at times, as a shield against experiencing it at all.

Lerner's background, like Adam's, is as a poet and a very fine one. Three books of poetry preceded his first novel and plenty of awards. While the plot of the novel is easy to fall into, Adam's vacillations between women and friends providing both humanity and humor, the aspect that heightens the slim book is Lerner's language. His tendency towards the poetic, a rhythm and a way of stringing together unlikely phrases, creates a mimetic novel, art about art.

"You can view any object from any angle or multiple angles simultaneously or you can shut your eyes and listen to the crowd in the arena or the sirens slowly approaching the red car or the sound of the pen writing down the years as silver is hammered and shaped."

In essence, the novel is less about art and more about the other elusive big word, self. Adam struggles with his poetry and with being a poet as he struggles with his relationships, with his medication (prescribed and not), and the idea that he has no substance in the world without them. He is the sum of his parts and his arts.
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Leaving the Atocha Station is a plotless (and nearly pointless) novel. The fact that half a dozen newspapers named it one of the best of 2011 is probably an indication of how completely out of touch the literary establishment has become. Books like this remind me of something Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michael Dirda (Book World, Washington Post) recently said: "More books of worth and value are going out of print than are being published today."

Mostly, the book seems to be about a fraud (who thinks he is less fraudulent for repeating the confession that he is a fraud) and his intricate machinations to deceive the people around him in every respect--and yet we are supposed to sympathize with him. The book is so disingenuous, it's pretty much a poster child for something David Foster Wallace warned was taking over our arts and our culture--a general refusal to be sincere in any way ... but rather always to be ironical, cynical, snarky. The main character, a "poet" (just like the author) who is from Kansas (just like the author) and is on fellowship in Spain (as the author once was), strikes any number of cynical poses, but Lerner has nothing to add to literature, writing, or even your day. The book opens in the poet's attic apartment in Spain, which seems just a bit cliché. The narrator spends the opening of the book walking around like the cliché alienated, angst-ridden artist with no friends and no social life only to introduce us to his beautiful girlfriend on page 45 or so. I suppose this is to show us the fraud is such a fraud even he doesn't know what a fraud he is, but it just looks contrived.

The narrator isn't just unlikeable, he's shallow, self-absorbed, and obsessed with how he looks to others--but he writes good poetry of course ...
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