Skip to main content
book review

Ben LernerMatt Lerner

In 10:04, Ben Lerner's beautiful new novel, it is always "unseasonably warm." The world "rearranges itself" – around the narrator, when a mentor falls ill; around a woman who learns her father is not her biological parent. The planet rearranges itself more literally, too, growing hotter and menacing New York with apocalyptic storms. Everything is "unusual" – Whole Foods shoppers are "unusually polite" as an "unusually large cyclonic system" approaches the city – and reality is constantly "flickering." The book's epigraph tells of a Hasidic story in which "the world to come" is almost identical to our own, but not quite. That refrain returns again and again. "Everything will be as it is now," the leitmotif goes, "just a little different."

Lerner's first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, also employed such refrains; the most crucial was "a profound experience of art," or, more precisely, the narrator's inability to have one. (There were also, thrillingly, small glimpses at what would become the major themes and symbols of 10:04: "unseasonably" warm or cool weather; rising sea levels; alienation from the familiar, and from oneself; "Everything was a little changed, a little charged.") Published by a small press in 2011, Leaving the Atocha Station was a surprise critical smash, and much was said about its apparently autobiographical nature. The narrator was, like Lerner, an American poet from Topeka on a prestigious fellowship in Spain, and the book felt deeply, painfully experienced.

Much of the same will be said about 10:04. The unnamed narrator is a poet whose previous novel was unexpectedly successful; he shares the anxieties and self-loathing of said previous novel's narrator; and so on. Crucially, however, 10:04 pre-empts questions about what is and isn't autobiographical, or "real," by making those questions the object of its study. This is a stupid way to put it, but the book is about, well, reality. Or, rather, it is about perception: about "the tension between the metaphysical and physical worlds," and "the realistic fiction the world appears to be."

Part of what made Leaving the Atocha Station so affecting was the slow, rolling rhythm of its prose, the clauses and semicolons and commas unspooling themselves endlessly, each sentence spiraling around, but never quite reaching, something that resembled meaning; this was coupled with the narrator's refusal to accept that he understood Spanish. ("She described the death of her father when she was a little girl, or how the death of her father turns her back into a little girl whenever she thinks of it; he had been young when he died but seemed old to her now, or he had been old when he died but in her memories grew younger.") It was a funny book, but in a bleak way, as when the narrator, inexplicably and untruthfully, tells a love interest that his mother is dead and his father is a fascist who "only respects violence," then thinks of his dad "patiently trying to get a spider from the carpet onto a piece of paper so he could escort it safely from house to yard."

10:04 is different. Line for line, it is written more accessibly than its predecessor, and is more straightforwardly uproarious; there is, for example, a lewd scene in a fertility clinic, in which the narrator is rendered helpless by his inability to select the pornography to which he wants to masturbate. The book more or less has a plot: a writer agrees to father his best friend's child, panics about a possibly life-threatening condition, lives through Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, and struggles to write his sophomore novel. If this is a more traditional book than Leaving the Atocha Station, though, we are made to believe that it is deliberately so – not because the narrator wants to write something more traditional, but because his metafictional project demands it. "Well, your first book was unconventional but really well received," his agent tells him during an opulent lunch to celebrate the "strong six-figure" advance he's received for his new novel. "What they're buying when they buy the proposal is in part the idea that your next book is going to be a little more…mainstream."

Lerner both has and has not delivered on that expectation. Certainly, the prose is less lyrical, the one-liners more pointed (a pair of authors are "so distinguished I'd often thought of them as dead"; a real-life kiss is "the sexiest kiss in the history of independent film"). It's a powerful, compelling book, with a straightforward emotional heft that, in Lerner's previous novel, was more lightly sketched. But 10:04 is, structurally and formally, much weirder than Leaving the Atocha Station. For example, the second chapter is a short story Lerner published in The New Yorker in 2012, The Golden Vanity; it is presented as the short story itself, with its title in a New Yorker-esque typeface, and with New Yorker-esque dropcaps, which do not appear anywhere else in the book, denoting section breaks. The narrator received his novel's advance on the strength of The Golden Vanity, and later, when his agent tells him "you need to keep the New Yorker story in there," we understand why it appears in the form it does; no one can say that the New Yorker story is not "in there."

Similarly, a version of a self-published book about dinosaurs, which, according to the acknowledgements, Lerner wrote with a child named Elias Garcia (who in 10:04 becomes "Roberto"), is reprinted here, as are bits and pieces of poems and essays that Lerner has published elsewhere. Other people's stories figure prominently as well, such as the aforementioned woman's revelation about her paternity, or a man discovering that his girlfriend faked her cancer; there are photos of Mars and stills from Back to the Future. This gives the book the feel of a palimpsest, a conscious move; at one point, the narrator, delivering a lecture, celebrates the beauty of a Ronald Reagan speech, written by someone else, that included unattributed quotations from a poem that was itself plagiarized: "a kind of palimpsestic plagiarism that moves through bodies and time, a collective song with no single origin, or whose origin has been erased – the way a star, from our earthly perspective, is often survived by its own light."

Although 10:04 is undoubtedly "metafictional," it is not necessarily (or only) about "fiction" in the literary sense. Its metafiction is a vessel for explicitly discussing other realities, other ways in which human experience could manifest itself. While this is arguably true of all fiction, in 10:04 it takes on a specialized meaning. This metafiction doesn't just invite us to inhabit another person, or consider life in an alternative universe; instead, it presents us, at every turn, with new forks in the road, forcing us to consider what it means to take one path rather than another. In pondering these unrealized futures, we are invited to imagine a world in the brontosaurus was real, rather than a palimpsest of other dinosaur bones; or in which pigeons are members of the order Passeriformes rather than Columbiformes; or in which art becomes garbage. To the extent that 10:04 is "about" anything, it is about the tensions between, and possibilities of, these different worlds and different futures.

The book's weakest chapter is also, not surprisingly, its most solipsistic; the narrator travels to a residency in Marfa, Texas, where he retreats into himself and works on anything other than his novel, which was originally supposed to be about a writer who fabricates correspondence with other, more famous writers. But then things take a poignant turn, and, following a traumatic, ketamine-fueled house party, he comes to a realization: "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; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures."

This idea – "multiple futures" – lies at the heart of the book's surprising optimism. An oft-repeated criticism of Leaving the Atocha Station was that, for all its melancholy, its ending felt pat, particularly the very last line: "Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends." 10:04, on the other hand, makes its intentions known early; as the narrator announces on the second page, "I'll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid."

The narrator's "strong six-figure" advance, which he winkingly refers to throughout the book, signals his faith in the world to come. Before he's even begun the novel, he spends his advance wildly – on fertility-related procedures, on meals with friends, on his self-published book with Roberto – because he believes in "betting on the future." And, although 10:04 is told in first person, it is occasionally, jarringly addresses to a "you" – both a second-person plural and, it seems, a single, unborn child.

The narrator's decision to father that child amid the looming horror of climate change is especially telling. At one point, he imagines his future offspring asking him, "Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?" He answers with something vague about "the possibilities of experience." But a more significant, if indirect, reply comes later, when he contemplates the New York skyline. He sees it as "the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn't yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed."

Drew Nelles is a senior editor at The Walrus.