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Review: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

The narrator is not an aloof artist, but someone absurdly tied-up in the daily neuroses of the modern world.

Review: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

Working at the Park Slope co-op, 10:04’s unnamed narrator wants to give some advice to a fellow volunteer. The woman, Noor, has just revealed that, not long after her father’s death, she learned her father wasn’t actually her father. She associated with his Lebanese ancestry, and she has difficulty comprehending what that now entails, knowing her relatives in Beirut aren’t actually her relatives. A published writer dealing with a successful publication, the narrator worries, though, that his encouraging words will register as “presumptuous co-op nonsense,” if he claims that “discovering you are not identical with yourself, even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different.”

Lifted from a Hasidic belief of the afterlife, the clause “where everything is the same but a little different” serves as the epigraph for Ben Lerner’s second novel, becoming something close to a refrain. It’s this notion—the ability, through art, to offer conflicting versions of the self—that Lerner, or Lerner’s narrator, confronts. And it’s to the author’s great credit, most especially, that his words register not as “presumptuous co-op nonsense,” as a pretentious or pedantic affront, but rather as a humorous and intelligent exploration of art’s place in the present day.

Bookended by fictional versions of Hurricane Irene and Sandy, nothing much happens to the protagonist over the course of the narrative’s year. The superstorms, much like the Madrid train bombings in Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, have little-to-no effect on the main character’s own well-being. His only predicaments, really, are learning to live with a heart condition, completing a proposal (and the subsequent book), and serving as a sperm donor for his best friend, Alex, who wants a child but is unsure of her opinion on a fatherly presence.

If Leaving the Atocha Station is about Adam Gordon, the narrator on a prestigious poetry fellowship in Madrid, and his self-perception as a fraud (his inability to have “a profound experience of art”), then 10:04 is about how the protagonist, a young novelist with a successful debut and a recent short story in The New Yorker, handles the aftermath of bringing about certain experiences in others. Most of the reaction to The New Yorker short story and the first book, however, concerns people’s obsessions with the works’ level of autobiography, and it’s Lerner’s handling of this response, through rampant self-deprecation and deft humor, that separates 10:04 from other novels that focus on writers writing about writing.

In other words, the narrator is not an aloof artist, but someone absurdly tied-up in the daily neuroses of the modern world. He often clarifies complex theories with phrases like “whatever that means,” halting the narrative when it’s on the verge of being too serious, too didactic. He confirms things on Wikipedia, argues about the scientific inconsistencies in the Apollo moon landing, credits his origins as a poet to Ronald Reagan’s speech following the Challenger disaster. At other points, he adopts a nocturnal schedule at a residency in Marfa, Texas, mocks the publishing industry (“publishers,” his agent explains, will “pay for prestige”), helps a Hispanic student construct a book on the Brontosaurus and quells the child’s fear of the YouTube-famous Joseph Kony. Internally, and with friends, he also offers poetic and nuanced readings of Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc and Christian Marclay’s film The Clock, a 24-hour-long montage, while also lauding Back to the Future (Lerner draws his title from the movie; it’s the time when Marty returns to 1985). Most especially, when he lends an Occupy Wall Street protestor his shower and cooks for him a dinner of “prodigious blandness,” they exchange a hysterical dialogue of misplaced masculinity: the “performance” of “piss[ing] in a urinal” and “tak[ing] out your dick,” and acting “as if you were lifting some kind of weight.” And when, too, he goes to New York-Presbyterian Hospital (“bank, medical office, and pornographic theater”) to donate his sperm, his excessive hand washing and constant worry of contaminating the sample produces probably the funniest masturbation scene in literature.

10:04 is a complex text, if anything else, and one does run the risk of trying to put all of Lerner’s fictional selves together, to mesh his one “joke cycle” into a coherent narrative. It’s easy, that is, to attempt to arrive at the “a-ha” moment, to figure out what he means, to realize, as in finishing Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” that the man and woman have been talking about an abortion the whole time.

Reading Lerner’s critical essay “Damage Control” in Harper’s, about vandalism and art, for example, one could pull any number of obvious ideas that appear, or reappear, in his fiction. His description of Stendhal’s protagonist, Fabrice, in The Charterhouse of Parma, “wander[ing] in confusion during the Battle of Waterloo, wondering…if he’s participating in history” is Gordon’s fear, in Leaving the Atocha Station, when the explosions go off. And Elka Krajewska’s Salvage Art Institute provides the basis for 10:04’s Institute for Totaled Art, where the narrator’s love interest, Alena, acquires and showcases pieces deemed damaged, those “demoted from art to mere art object,” those that would otherwise waste away, unseen in some storage facility. Furthermore, “what move[s] [Lerner] most,” at the Salvage Art Institute, “[are] not those works that were clearly severely damaged…but those that [appear to him] identical to their former incarnation as economically valuable art,” which reminds him of “an anecdote” he read about a certain Hasidic story on “the world to come.”

And regardless of what that future is, Lerner has now established himself firmly in the realm of fiction, adding to his triumphs in poetry and criticism. He will prove, if not already, to be an important figure in contemporary American literature. Whatever that means.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is available September 2 from Faber & Faber.

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