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Books: Ben Lerner's 10:04 fulfills and surpasses the promise of his 2011 debut

Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner
University of Pennsylvania

Ben Lerner’s second self-referential novel 10:04, which is published this week by New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Faber and Faber imprint, fulfills and surpasses the promise of his 2011 debut novel Leaving Atocha Station. His best writing, however, is found in his poetry. In my New York Journal of Books review of 10:04 I write, “the pleasure this novel provides is found less in what happens to the characters than in the language Lerner commands to relate that and his various cogitations, as well as in time spent in the company of a first rate mind.”

One of the plot elements in 10:04 is how Lerner’s conception of the work we are reading evolves. When at the outset his agent conveys the news that a handsome advance for the as yet unwritten book is forthcoming and asks what he plans to write, the fictional Lerner answers to himself “‘I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously,’ I should have said, ‘a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.’” His conception of the book will continue to evolve at different points in the narrative until he replaces the earlier concept with the book we are reading.

Lerner like his fellow New Yorkers has a heightened awareness of the electrical grid’s vulnerability because the action of the novel takes place between Hurricane Irene (which was disastrous for upstate and parts of New England but a big nothing here in the Big Apple) and Super Storm Sandy (which destroyed shorefront homes and blacked out parts of the city and left other parts unaffected other than rerouted transit lines).

10:04 also includes other bits of recent history such as Occupy Wall Street one of whose out of town protestors Lerner provides a shower and home cooked meal. An inexperienced cook, as Lerner cooks for a stranger he chastises himself for not reciprocating the meals his friends have cooked for him, “but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism.” The novel also includes a description of a work shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op.

The novel’s title 10:04 comes from Christian Marclay’s 24 hour video The Clock which the fictional Lerner watches and critiques. “When I looked at my watch to see a unit of measure identical to the one on the screen, I was indicating that a distance remained between art and the mundane.” And that reminds us of the distance and presumed difference between Lerner’s fictional narrative and the life he actually lived at that time.

In his previous novel Leaving The Atocha Station the fictional Lerner is a self-described bipolar compulsive liar, but in 10:04 he appears comparatively even tempered. As I point out in my NYJB review, in 10:04 “the fictional Lerner has a real potentially life threatening medical condition, a minuscule perforation in his aorta, that must be monitored.” And having something real to worry about turns out to be emotionally healthy, as the fictional Lerner remarks, “the irony of my recent cardiac diagnosis was that it gave me an objective reason for my emotional turbulences and so was, in that sense, stabilizing: now I was reckoning with a specific existential threat, not just the vacuum of existence.”

So how do things turn out for Lerner? To learn that you’ll have to read the book, a fuller discussion of which is found in my NYJB review.