by Ben Lerner

reviewed by Shan Wang

Who should read Ben Lerner’s second novel—if it can be rightly called a novel—10:04? It is not a book of poems, though it is filled with poetry. It is not nonfiction, though biographical details overlap tantalizingly with Lerner’s actual life. There is no clear plot, though there are numerous intersecting plotlines. Though slim, it is not a book to speed through at the risk of missing out on the pleasures of its prose, which is a mix of inflated (he does not cry, he has “lacrimal events”) and lyrical (“I am kidding and I am not kidding; I remember it, which means it never happened”). But is it a book written for writers whose tried-and-true conceit of teetering on “the edge of fiction” is more an annoyance than novelty? 10:04 is for those who can afford to be patient with its denser passages of theoretical musing and the self-effacing anxieties of an academic. This is not to dissuade the reader from taking up the book altogether, but to say that 10:04 is a selfish work—250 beautifully written pages of Ben Lerner struggling to understand the artistic purpose of Ben Lerner.

Like Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, published by a small Minnesota press in 2011 to astounding acclaim, 10:04 is mysteriously metafictional, a palimpsest of both fiction and nonfiction, peeled back to reveal more and more layers of each. The narrator (also named Ben), on the heels of a first novel that was a critical darling (not unlike Atocha), has just received a six-figure second book deal on the strength of a New Yorker short story (The Golden Vanity, which actually appears in the summer 2012 issue of the New Yorker and also appears in full in 10:04). Then the story we are reading turns out to be the very book that narrator-Ben was paid six figures to write. 10:04 gets its title from the hour at which lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future, transporting Marty McFly through time, and it goes through the same sort of chronological gymnastics as Back to the Future.

The book is divided into several sections, all vignettes of the narrator’s life in Brooklyn, with a brief sojourn to Marfa, Texas, where he was a writer-in-residence (Lerner, too, was at a residency in Marfa). Major catastrophes bypass him: hurricane Irene was overhyped, hurricane Sandy largely spares his neighborhood, his potentially fatal heart condition does not play out, as far as the reader can tell, and he has successfully completed his second book, since we are reading it. The narrator also surveys other works of art as he tries to create his own. He is floored in particular by a girlfriend’s exhibit of works of insured art deemed “worthless” after they had been damaged and the insurance paid out. They were, he writes, “object[s] for or from a future where there was some other regime of value than the tyranny of price.” Meanwhile, the narrator becomes hyperaware of the monetary value of his book contract—$270,000 after agent’s take and taxes—and frets about how to write a six-figure book.

For all its complexity, 10:04 is not entirely overwrought literary melodrama. There is plenty of action, and it is funny. In an attempt to provide sperm for his best friend Alex’s insemination, he is paralyzed by the porn video selection at the clinic, becomes momentarily too anxious about the cleanliness of the remote to perform, and shuffles around the room, pants down, obsessively washing his hands. These moments help deflect from the crush of 10:04’s introspective, lonely-white-male-ness, which Lerner himself recognizes: “The fact is that realizing my selfishness just led to more selfishness; that is, I felt lonely, felt sorry for myself, despite the fact that I was so often cooked for . . . ”

Narrator-Ben may be criticizing more than himself. Narrator-Ben, like Lerner, is in his mid-30s, a lauded poet who teaches at a New York university. Even characters in 10:04 wonder whether narrator-Ben’s writing borrows from narrator-Ben’s own life. After speaking on a panel alongside two better-known authors, Ben finds himself striking up a conversation about his New Yorker story with the “distinguished female author” afterwards at dinner:

        “Do you have a brain tumor?” she asked. I was impressed less with her frankness than with the fact that it appeared she’d actually read [the] story.
“Not that I know of.”
“Is it part of a longer work?”
“Maybe. I think I might try to make it into a novel. A novel in which the author tries to falsify his archive, tries to fabricate all these letters—mainly emails—from recently dead authors that he can sell to a fancy library.”

The novel about fabrications never materialized; what has, though, is 10:04, which is as much about the year in the narrator’s life during which he tries to complete his book as it is about his coming to terms with the possibility that all writing, all recounting of past events, is necessarily a kind of fiction.

Published on April 17, 2015