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 death.” The next, sitting alone, his agent having excused herself to use the bathroom, he is overtaken by a different mood altogether: “The noise was deafening now that I wasn’t talking or listening to anyone in particular…. For a second all I heard was the desperation, the hysterical energy of passengers on a doomed liner.” Outside Mount Sinai Hospital, people wear a “puzzled look” when they step onto the sidewalk, “as if they’ve suddenly forgotten something important, but aren’t sure what: their keys, their phone, the particulars of their loss?” In the subway, “a man in a hooded sweatshirt was passed out or had passed away on one of the wooden seats.”
Or consider this remarkable passage, in which, several days before Hurricane Sandy makes landfall, Ben pays a visit to his office at the Brooklyn college where he teaches in the MFA program:
When I finally found the correct key and opened the door I was surprised by a sudden blast of wind, a few papers swirling in it. The large window facing the lawn was open some ten inches, had perhaps been that way for many months, although the computer and desk would prove to be dry, undamaged. As I took in my office from the doorway, I felt I was looking into the office of a dead man—a mildly musty smell, despite the open window; the disarranged papers, a leftover plastic Starbucks cup that had once held iced coffee, a small plastic bag of almonds, an open copy of the Cantos facedown on the desk: it felt like somebody had planned to be right back and never returned…. I picked up the papers and hastily organized the desk, then turned on my computer, reassured by the Apple start-up chime, F-sharp major chord, a registered trademark.
If people are characterized either by a clean desk or a messy desk then Ben is definitely the latter, and this glimpse of his office—the Starbucks cup, the bag of almonds, Pound’s Cantos, the Apple computer—serves as a fitting metaphor for his over-full mind, or if you like, for 10:04 itself, a loose, capacious structure capable of accommodating just about anything Lerner feels like putting into it.
But mortality is not the only thing that Ben is reckoning with in 10:04. His closest friend is Alex, a single thirty-six-year-old woman between jobs who, tired of waiting for “professional and biological rhythms to coincide,” has decided to have a child through artificial insemination. Ben is to donate the sperm, though the exact nature of his involvement in the child’s life is still uncertain—and a source of considerable anxiety for the already considerably anxious narrator. After a hilariously protracted visit to the fertility clinic (which he refers to as the “masturbatorium”), Ben sits down on a park bench and imagines a conversation with his as yet unconceived child. “Why reproduce,” the child demands to know of the doomy narrator, “if you believe the world is ending?” To which Ben responds:
Because the world is always ending for each of us and if one begins to withdraw from the possibilities of experience, then no one would take any of the risks involved with love. And love has to be harnessed by the political.
This feverish tone (“love has to be harnessed by the political”) is characteristic of Ben, whose left-wing anxieties about climate change and wealth disparity, compounded by his medical condition and impending fatherhood, have begun to take on an air of crazed prophecy. It is as though the precariousness of his own physical state (“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”) has awakened him to what he is now convinced is the precariousness of civilization at large. In one stirring scene, he and Alex visit the Union Square Whole Foods to stock up on provisions in the hours before another storm, Hurricane Irene, hits New York. Browsing the “typically bright aisles of superabundance” that now contain “large empty spaces, especially among prepackaged staples,” he picks out a container of coffee and is struck by the following vision:
It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close.
Everything will be as it is now, just a little different—nothing in me or the store had changed, except maybe my aorta, but, as the eye drew near, what normally felt like the only possible world became one among many, its meaning everywhere up for grabs, however briefly….
As political analysis, this is rather flimsy, but it is typical of Lerner’s sly political comedy. Although Ben is, inwardly, a character of radical aspiration—he looks forward to “a future where there was some other regime of value than the tyranny of price”—he spends most of his time behaving like a bourgeois gentleman of leisure, going for walks, pursuing women, looking at art, and so forth. At one point, he allows an Occupy Wall Street protester to take a shower in his apartment, but the two men soon go their separate ways: the protester back to Zuccotti Park, Ben to Lincoln Center, to see Christian Marclay’s film The Clock.
Ben would always prefer to meditate upon what he calls “the world to come” (presumably some future just society, not that we ever get a clear sense of what this would entail) than lift a finger to ameliorate the injustices of the present system. Thus his grandiose Frankfurt School epiphany in Whole Foods (“what normally felt like the only possible world became one among many”), an intimation of some beautiful collective future that is really of no use to anyone but himself.
This is not to say that Lerner is without sincere political commitments (after all, Ben’s fears, though overwrought, are hardly groundless), just that he is a novelist and not a pamphleteer, a writer more interested in human comedy than socioeconomic brooding. If Ben’s political yearnings remain conceptually woolly and, in practical terms, a long way from realization, they point toward another activity in which he has more luck imposing his personal vision on reality—his art. Artistic creation has in common with left-wing political struggle a desire to remake the world. Ben looks at life, in all its unsatisfactory chaos and irrelevance, as the material for something that might transcend those qualities, something with shape and meaning and beauty.
Throughout the book we witness him cannibalizing his own experience, and the experience of those around him, for his fiction and poetry. (Like Lerner, who has published three collections of poems, Ben is also a poet.) As all the correspondences between narrator and author would seem to make plain, 10:04 is itself a work of such cannibalism. Ben equals Lerner, we pretty much assume from the beginning.
But not so fast. The book tackles this issue head-on in its penultimate section. Ben is doing a writer’s residency in Marfa, Texas, where he hopes to begin work on his novel. (Lerner, the acknowledgments inform us, was a resident at Marfa too.) Instead of getting on with the book, though, he finds himself writing a long, diary-like poem about his experience of Marfa, in which certain seemingly insignificant details are changed. “The poem,” Ben explains,
like most of my poems…conflated fact and fiction, and it occurred to me—not for the first time, but with a new force—that part of what I loved about poetry was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain, how the correspondence between text and world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself, what possibilities of feeling were opened up in the present tense of reading.
(Like Lerner’s New Yorker story, the poem, “The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also,” a roving, Ashbery-like meditation on time and art first published in the journal Lana Turner, is reproduced in full here.)
By the end of the residency he has given up altogether on the novel he came to write, the novel that in the opening scene his agent was sure she could sell for “strong six-figures”: “I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them;…an actual present alive with multiple futures.” Or to put it another way, Ben and Lerner, character and author, 10:04 and the world it depicts, are the same—just a little different.
In his study of Gogol, Nabokov says that Gogol’s plots are unimportant: “The real plot…lies in the style.” In 10:04 the plot is not so much unimportant as nonexistent; as its title suggests, it is a book built out of discrete moments, Wordsworthian “spots of time,” rather than any kind of linear narrative. As in Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner’s goal in 10:04 is to represent the supposedly “unnarratable” moments of life—to get in the experience (walking around, daydreaming, idling away time) that usually gets left out of more conventional fiction. The binding agent, in both cases, is Lerner’s limpid, sinuous style.
But 10:04 is not without its own set of conventions that threaten to undermine the messy-desk naturalness (or what Lerner calls “the texture of et cetera itself”) that it aspires to. Worried, perhaps, that in the absence of any real plot, his novel will devolve into formlessness, Lerner insists too heavily on the development of a number of leitmotifs. Certain words and phrases (“unseasonable warmth,” “the world rearranged itself around me,” “orders of temporality”) are repeated to the point of gimmickry; the same ideas are taken up by almost every character in the book, in a way that comes to seem artificial.
This thematic tendentiousness hurts the book in other ways too. From the old college professor and mentor whom he visits in the hospital to the wealthy art-world power couple he meets in Marfa, it is hard to think of a single character in the novel (and there are plenty of vivid bit parts) whose worldview is not basically aligned with that of the main character. At times, Ben resembles a political talk-show host who invites only those guests he knows will further his own agenda.
Then there is the question of Ben himself. If he is more mature than his precursor Adam Gordon, he is also, for all the brilliance of his observations, somehow less distinct as a person. It can sometimes feel that he is not so much a participant in his own life as a transparent eyeball drifting through it. During the Marfa section, he is reading Whitman’s memoir, Specimen Days, which he declares “an interesting failure”:
Just as in his poems, [Whitman] has to be nobody in particular in order to be a democratic everyman, has to empty himself out so that his poetry can be a textual commons for the future into which he projects himself.
Something of this cipher-like quality is present in Ben also.
And yet, these are retrospective complaints. 10:04 is anything but an “interesting failure.” Page by page, it can be luminous, intelligent, poignant, and funny. “I’d become the unreliable narrator of my first novel,” Ben frets at one moment of social awkwardness toward the end of the book. It’s a good line, but it also raises an interesting question. What, one wonders, will Lerner’s next novel be about? A successful, mid-career novelist trying to decide what his next novel will be about? We might hope that a fuller expansion is on the way. Meanwhile, 10:04 is a rare achievement. This is only Lerner’s second novel (and he is only thirty-five), and yet to talk about mere “promise,” as is customary with the young, seems insufficient. Even if he writes nothing else for the rest of his life, this is a book that belongs to the future.