Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed new novel, 10:04, opens with the narrator walking along High Line Park in Manhattan with his literary agent after having shared a meal of baby octopus “massaged to death” in salt, and he experiences a “succession of images, sensations and memories” which don’t belong to him, but to the octopus: polarized light, a “conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups“. After this extremely empathic occurrence, the narrator clarifies: “I am kidding and I am not kidding.”
In retrospect, this line was like a warning shot. 10:04 is a novel which lies in the gray area between kidding and not kidding in the sense that it is not strictly a work of fiction or non-fiction, but a metafiction which is fixated with the mysterious transformation which makes life into art. Doubtless, it is a brilliant novel, but after I finished the book I couldn’t help thinking if I was the victim of a joke of some sort. So I ended up reading Lerner’s other book too and a whole lot of his essays.
Ben Lerner himself is a poet who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown University and travelled to Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship. His debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), is about a poet called Adam Gordon, who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown and is living in Madrid on a fellowship. Variety. I like it. Here, Gordon is supposed to be working on a research-intensive poem on the Spanish Civil War but instead, he roams around, visits museums and gets high. Gordon worries that he is a fraud–and maybe he is. He makes things up to manipulate those around him and is somewhat in awe of seemingly authentic people who appear capable of unstudied and genuine feelings. Theme-wise, Leaving the Atocha Station is adolescent and Gordon reminded me a bit of Holden Caufield. (Refuse to explain. Read Catcher In The Rye) However, the way Lerner probed into Adam’s awkwardness, plus his complicated sentences, makes the story so much more than the Y.A.-fiction it might be mistaken for.
My point is that while Gordon bears a ‘passing’ resemblance to Lerner, you can still make out that he is a fictional character. The narrator of 10:04, Ben, totally seems like a stand-in for the author, partly because, unlike Gordon, who busies himself not writing, Ben does write: he writes 10:04.
Ben is a poet from (guess where?) Kansas who published a successful first novel and receives a six-figure advance for a second novel on the strength of a story that he wrote for The New Yorker. He promises his agent that he will work on expanding thew story during an artist’s residency in Marfa, Texas. While in Marfa, he decides “to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that…is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.” This ‘flickering’ makes the novel feel structurally unstable, as Lerner jumps from one literary level to another.
“Escher’s Relativity”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia
I divided the story into 3 levels. On Level 1, Ben has been diagnosed with a heart condition and consider’s impregnating his platonic best friend, Alex,”not in copula because fucking you would be bizarre but rather through intrauterine insemination“. In one of the funniest scenes in the novel, Ben compulsively rewashes his hands, scared of containing the sample, before masturbating into a plastic container. Meanwhile, his ailing mentor, Bernard, has named him his literary executor. In the midst of all this, Ben decides to write a story involving “a series of transpositions“. He’ll shift his medical problem to another part of his body and call Alex ‘Liza’. Instead of becoming a literary executor, he’ll be approached by a library about selling his papers. He’ll call himself “the author“.
Level 2 is the story, which was actually published by Lerner in The New Yorker and appears as the second chapter in 10:04. Level 3 is the novel that Ben from Level 1, after publishing the story in The New Yorker, begins writing but ultimately abandons: A novel in which an author–the one from Level 2–“tries to falsify his archive, tries to fabricate all these letters–mainly e-mails–from recently dead authors that he can sell to a fancy library.”
To complicate things further, Lerner scrambles the chronology. Ben describes his advance on the second page of the novel and then goes back in time to explain how he came to write the New Yorker story. He writes it, publishes it, again describes his advance and his celebratory octopus-consuming dinner with his agent, flies to Marfa, decides to write 10:04, and returns home to New York. This circularity doesn’t make the novel difficult to follow–though it is quite difficult to describe.
Even when the narrative moves in a linear fashion it does not feel linear since Lerner repeats himself–purposefully, of course. Toward the beginning of the novel, Ben and Alex prepare for Hurricane Irene. Toward the end they experience Hurricane Sandy, an echoing event. The Michael J. Fox movie, Back to the Future, is mentioned several times throughout the novel. In fact, 10:04 is the time when lightning strikes a clock tower, powering the car that takes Fox’s time-travelling character back to “the future”, his present: 1985.
Lerner doesn’t leave it to the readers to make the connections between his fictional and temporal experiments. In Marfa, Ben announces that he’ll write “the book you’re reading now,” he elaborates, ‘I resolved not to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.” It is very difficult to summarise what Lerner is trying to do. In my opinion, he means that the process of turning life into fiction is like going back in time. While writing fiction, the author feels, like Fox’s character in Back to the Future, that he could make different choices, making a subtly different present.
It is also not strictly accurate to say that “Lerner is driving at” something. Maybe Ben in the story is saying something and Ben Lerner, the author of the book, would argue something completely different, though it’s completely understandable if you conflate the two, and not just because the two share basic life-stories. Ben Lerner’s work in The New Yorker and other journals and magazines have been attributed to Ben, the protagonist in the novel. It is looking at these insertions that made me think if the novel was a joke. That, like his protagonist, Lerner felt compelled for several reasons to write a second novel and decided to do this by joining already-published work with already expressed ideas, figuring he could justify this process by making it a part of the story. This is an old literary trick: masking laziness with ‘knowingness’.
The Marfa section, in which Ben describes his dull daily life there–eating, sleeping, writing–aggravates the feeling that Lerner does not have that much respect for his readers; that he’s a poet who condescends to write novels, and thinks too highly of his ability to convert whatever he happens to think or experience into narrative. For instance, he describes young Mexican men labouring on his roof and then he describes turning them into characters in his poem. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Lerner was indeed a writer-in-residence at Marfa.
That Lerner sometimes lets the reader in on his meta-fictional jokes does not lessen the feeling that he is trying to get away with something. At the celebratory dinner, Ben’s agent offers him advice on how to write a commercially viable book which will be his “opportunity to reach a much wider audience“. However, Ben does none of that and I think Lerner certainly expects readers to notice this omission as a wink and maybe, in noticing, to excuse any other flaws as intentional elements of a novel meant for a select, rather than “wide”, audience.
If these criticisms sound like whatever the opposite of a backhanded compliment is, then my goal here has been achieved. Lerner has written a rich, sophisticated novel, and maybe he’s not wrong to assume that he can write just about anything on the page and succeed, or that maybe the readers will forgive his repackaging of his own poetry, stories and ideas–especially since it works. However, I don’t believe it will gain him many new fans.
This is not a book that I would recommend to readers in general. But if you have read Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it, you will find 10:04 to be a quite satisfying second effort.