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September 8, 2011

Book Notes - Ben Lerner ("Leaving the Atocha Station")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Leaving the Atocha Station is an impressive debut novel from accomplished poet Ben Lerner. The problem of authenticity in our age is wonderfully explored in these heartfelt and often surprisingly funny pages.

The Outlet wrote of the book:

"Everything in 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."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is Ben Lerner's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station:


When I try to imagine a playlist that relates to Leaving the Atocha Station I find myself almost exclusively thinking of songs set to images: music videos, music from films. This is probably because the novel is concerned with the relationship between text and image and because it plays with the crossing of narrative boundaries, something music does beautifully in movies when it shuttles between the world of the characters and that of the audience. This following short list, like the novel, is set in Spain, where I lived for parts of 2003-2004, although my memories of that time are often borrowed from cinema. The first night we arrived in Madrid we saw Saura's Taxi at a theater in the plaza where one of its most important scenes takes place.


1. Caetano Veloso singing "Cucurrucucu Paloma" in Pedro Almodovar's Habla Con Ella

Increasingly I seem to repress my sources while writing so only now do I allow myself to realize how much I owe to Almodovar and Veloso for a crucial early scene in LTAS where the protagonist has his ironic detachment melted by a guitarist playing at a party outside of Madrid: "He was careful not to raise his voice, or to let it raise itself a little on its own, and he had a delicate lilt, his phrasing wavering between speech and song, mundanity and sorrow, the melody reasserting itself only to dissolve. The lyrics were composed almost entirely of vowels and it took me a while to realize the song was Portuguese, not Spanish; I experienced the slow shading of one language into another, a powerful effect only my ignorance of both enabled." (If you don't know Veloso's cover of Billy Jean: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_rPjLjABe8)


2. Jeanette singing "Porque Te Vas" through Ana Torrent in Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos

Ana Torrent (at eight years old) is among the finest actresses I know. She's the one in the turtleneck. "Porque Te Vas," which circulates throughout Saura's Cria Cuervos, is sung by Jeanette, an English-born singer. You can hear her accent, just as Ana's dead mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin, speaks slightly accented Spanish (Chaplin also plays the older version of Ana within the film).


3. El Guincho's "Bombay"

You can skip the brief introductory remarks. But El Guincho on his Roland SP-404 is a kind of one-man band of great silliness and beauty. And the rhythm of Nicolás Méndez's directing is so precise I can hear the beat in my head if I watch the video without sound. I believe this is the music Theresa would have playing in her apartment.


4. "La Cançó del Lladre" after the last shot in The Passenger

This Catalan folksong, "The Thief's Song," plays over the credits of Antonioni's The Passenger, a movie that figures in the novel. "Teresa asked me if I had seen the Antonioni movie partially set in Barcelona, The Passenger, and, lying, I said of course. She said I had his eyebrows, Jack Nicholson, that I called on my eyebrows to do important work, that if she were deaf she would read my eyebrows, not my lips…She said Arturo always claimed she looked like Maria Schneider who I knew from Last Tango in Paris, which I hated, and I could see what Arturo meant. I wondered what Maria Schneider's relationship to Jack Nicholson was in The Passenger, what kind of statement Teresa was making about our relationship, and based on the Antonioni films I knew, I guessed it was unflattering."


5. Bonus Track: John Ashbery and Ann Lauterbach reading Ashbery's "Litany"

Ashbery's poetry—the title of the novel is the title of one of his poems—is central to the book, so I'll end with this great recording of Ashbery and Lauterbach reading from "Litany," a work that Ashbery said was "to be read as simultaneous but independent monologues." I choose it in part because the narrator of my novel is always having simultaneous but independent internal monologues when he's conversing in Spanish, as he's never sure if he's understood a particular sentence and so imagines multiple possible meanings and multiple responses simultaneously: "I wanted to know what she had been crying about and I managed to communicate that desire…She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs; hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds."


Ben Lerner and Leaving the Atocha Station links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Bookforum review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
The Outlet review
Publishers Weekly review
Twin Cities Daily Planet review
Words and Peace review

The Believer interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
Molossus interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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