Ben Lerner’s new novel tells the story of a young American writer (“Ben”) who, like Lerner, lives in Brooklyn. Ben has recently published a very well-received first novel, never named, but which even the most casual observer of contemporary literature will struggle not to conflate with Lerner’s own very well-received debut, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011). Now, thanks to a short story of his that has just appeared in The New Yorker (cf. Lerner’s “The Golden Vanity” in the June 18, 2012, issue of The New Yorker), Ben’s agent believes she can secure him a “strong six-figure” advance for a follow-up novel. At this point (the book’s second paragraph), readers may begin to shift in their seats. Haven’t we read this one—the one about the postmodern novelist struggling to write his next novel—several dozen times before? Do we really need another 250 pages on the rarefied agonies of fiction-making?
It turns out that we do. 10:04 may be a work of spectacular self-involvement but, happily, the self with which it is centrally involved proves to be one of the most curious and engaging characters in recent fiction. Like Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, an American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, Ben is a feast of comic contradictions—an ardent anticapitalist who dines at high-end restaurants; an avant-garde writer who traces his creative origins to the movie Back to the Future; a man of vague communitarian longings who realizes that, at the age of thirty-three, he has never prepared a meal for anyone in his life. But whereas Adam was something of a man-child, insulated by arts funding and class privilege against the concerns of adulthood, Ben has been forced into doing some painful growing up.
To begin with, his struggles extend beyond the purely literary. Early in the book he is told he has a “potentially aneurysmal dilation of my aortic root that required close monitoring and probable surgical intervention.” Thus, “I was now burdened with the awareness that there was a statistically significant chance the largest artery in my body would rupture at any moment—an event I visualized, however incorrectly, as a whipping hose spraying blood into my blood.” That would be quite a burden, one imagines, and 10:04 is a book whose prose again and again betrays a mind struggling to assimilate the sudden looming prospect of its own demise.
The thought of death, Dr. Johnson said, concentrates the mind wonderfully. It also seems to sharpen the eye, for Ben looks at the world with a chilly, illusionless precision. His perceptions of contemporary New York, in all its frantic hedonism and scared hyperactivity, are one of the book’s principal pleasures. One moment Ben and his agent are enjoying “an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to…
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