Reading “Leaving the Atocha Station”

Recently I read Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. It is a hot book that came out last year. Because I don’t get to write enough English papers for school, I decided to do some close reading.

Why I thought, why everybody thought, that dying in a terrorist attack was more bound up with the inexorable logic of History than dying in a car crash or from lung cancer, I couldn’t really say. I told Teresa that it derived from our impoverished sense of the political, that we could not think of the car or cigarette as Titadine because that would force us to confront our economic mode; when she said I sounded like Carlos, my face burned. (150)

Some contexts: the speaker, Adam, is thinking about this topic because he is an American poet living in Madrid on a Fulbright in 2004; at this point in the novel he had witnessed first-hand a few weeks prior the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. He is talking to Teresa, an elusive romantic interest of Adam’s who is translating his poems. Carlos is a competitor for Teresa’s affections, also an active member of Spain’s socialist party.

I like this section because it’s a true observation. Lung cancer and car crashes are hugely political. Connecting lung disease to smoking to the swindling tobacco industry; reading the ubiquitous car crash as contingent on our absurd non-synergistic transportation system: these are needed comparisons. They remind us that our lives are twisted in a economic system. I, and Adam as well, think that this is a message we should be more aware of as citizens/actors/consumers.

The question is: why don’t we think that way? And I love how Lerner crafts the form of this passage to contain the answer. The two sentences are like a microcosm of an academic inquiry. In the first, Adam asks a question; in the second, he gives an answer. Of course, his answer in the second line leaves more questions. ‘Why does a derivative of “our impoverished sense of the political” continue to have such a hold over our understanding of death?’, Adam seems to wonder. Hence, the “I couldn’t really say” at the end of the first line lingers through the second.

What’s simultaneously happening with the exercise of academic argument-making, is that Adam is taking a stance. The first sentence is a question: by definition uncertain, unsatisfying in a way, kept to one’s self. The second sentence, however, is voiced to Teresa as an insight about the world. That, all academics realize, is a move that takes thought and confidence. Double the thought and confidence required if you’re talking to someone you like; triple if you’re trying to woo them by playing the role of the intellectually-stunning poet from America and every small utterance counts. So what happens when Adam articulates this neo-Marxist truth? How does Teresa react?

She says Adam’s insight is one that Carlos would make. Not the response Adam was looking for, for a couple of reasons. One because it shows that Teresa is thinking about Carlos and not himself, never something a vain dude wants to hear from his love interest. Also because of the phrasing. “Sounding like” someone else is never good. It makes Adam’s thesis seem less innovative. It makes it seem like a ‘common way of thinking’ rather than a ‘profound thought in isolation.’ “Sounding like” something else entangles you in a crowd. It entangles Adam, in this case, with a socialist politics that are over-passionate and -engaged for his particular brand of ex-pat, detached, lone wolf personality.

The hilarious twist of this passage is that Adam’s response to Teresa’s reaction provides an example of stubborn resistance to the “inexorable logic of History.” His embarrassment at Teresa’s connection is rooted in his self-cultivation as a unique and dispassionate writer, whose work will transcend, or at least outlast, historical situation. He does not want to be lost in the socialist mob; he doesn’t want Teresa or anyone else to think of him as a faceless revolutionary. He envisions himself as, to some extent, outside of the political.

This, then, is precisely the reason we don’t politicize car crashes or lung cancer. It’s dehumanizing to think of death not as a capstone on an individual’s life, but as part of a societal trend. We want our lives to be our own, not a product of historical contingency. (This is a reason why terrorism is so devastating: it wretches the victim from their personal life and arbitrarily involves a central part of their identity with a political struggle). There’s something enfeebling and callous in acknowledging a person, as they die, as the victim of this institution or the other.

For a true activist and maybe the model contemporary hero, the task is to overcome discomfort about ‘trivializing’ a person’s life by politicizing their death. The task is proudly join that faceless mob, to unite with others in overthrowing nefarious societal hegemons. Adam can’t bring himself to do that; Leaving the Atocha Station is in part a story about his difficulty.