About a quarter of the way through Ben Lerner’s recent novel 10:04, the novel’s narrator, a Brooklyn-based writer/professor who holds an uncanny resemblance to his creator, is informed by an acquaintance, “You sound like your novel.” He has just finished introducing himself this way: “I wanted to wave to you when you came in but I had this coffee in my hands and I was afraid I’d spill it and then I was afraid that by failing to wave I appeared unpleasant and then I felt myself scowling at appearing unpleasant and then realized I must really seem unpleasant and so had already made a disastrous impression.”
Much of 10:04, in fact, sounds like a Ben Lerner novel—which is expected on the one hand, since it is, indeed, a Ben Lerner novel, and remarkable on the other, since only two Ben Lerner novels have been released to date. The first, Leaving the Atocha Station, depicted a young American poet abroad who was paralyzed to the point of near-paralysis by questions of fraudulence and authenticity. That novel won widespread acclaim, receiving enthusiastic endorsements from establishment critics like James Wood and selection for prestigious best-of lists nationwide. It was a coup for a young writer (Lerner was only in his early thirties at the time) who appeared to have little interest in traditionally realist fiction of the kind that continues to dominate much literary attention outside of small press or avant-garde circles.
Actually, according to the narrator of 10:04, Atocha didn’t generate much of an audience, selling only about 10,000 copies nationwide. (I am intentionally conflating author and character here, a convergence that Lerner would appear to encourage.) Despite the first novel’s low sales, a New York publishing house took notice, offering the author a “strong six figure” advance for his second. That is a large sum for anyone, but it is a truly hallucinatory amount for a poet/postmodern novelist. “Most desire is imitative desire,” the narrator explains.
I loved Leaving the Atocha Station. More than almost any other work of fiction I have read in recent years, I felt that that novel spoke to the challenges of the individual self (the white, highly educated, upper-middle-class self—an individual self, I should say) in reconciling political values, philosophical concerns, literary ambitions, financial demands, and emotional experiences into a coherent, relatively tolerable life. When, at the end of the book, the narrator manages to transcend his own self-consciousness to enter into the communal space of the poetry reading, I nearly wept.
And yet my initial response to 10:04, which essentially picks up where Leaving the Atocha Station left off—the narrator thirty-three instead of twenty-three, a professor of literature living in Brooklyn instead of a poet on fellowship in Madrid—was tepid. Perhaps it was simply that I had gotten older, or poorer (actually, both of these things are true), but Lerner’s brand of hyperintellectualized introspection struck me as less illuminating than self-indulgent. His sentences were well-crafted, his ideas thought-provoking, yet the narrative left me cold.
Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t much to admire about the novel’s first pages. The early sections are littered with interesting insights into the nature of art, time, memory, and literature.
About a gallery opening, he observes: “It was impossible, as at most openings, to look at the art; indeed, the opening as a form, insofar as I understood it, was a ritual destruction of the conditions of viewing for the artifacts it was meant to celebrate.”
About an upscale grocery store in advance of a coming storm: “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 highways were starting to close.”
About food politics as they relate to racial politics: “A new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety [was emerging among the white middle class]: instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were—for reasons you sympathized with, reasons that weren’t really their fault—compromised by the food and drink they ingested; all those artificial dyes had darkened them on the inside.” Following the narrator around his privileged life, dutifully tracking his complex and often erudite thoughts, I was confused most by the form. Why not examine these ideas through essay, or a series of essays? Why bother to integrate them into fiction, except for, perhaps, the promise of strong six figures?
The novel did eventually win me over, but by that time I was two-thirds of the way through and skeptical about whether my efforts would ever pay off. The narrator was no longer in Brooklyn but Marfa, a sparsely populated outpost in West Texas that is home to a prestigious artist residency, an art foundation, and a museum dedicated to the work of the land artist Donald Judd. At the residency, the narrator had intended to spend his time working on the novel for which he had secured the exorbitant advance. Instead, he occupies himself by reading Walt Whitman and fiddles with a “bizarre meditative lyric in which I was sometimes Whitman, and in which the strangeness of the residency itself was the theme.” When he finally ventures out of the residency house, he finds himself at a fancy house party where he encounters a crowd of art patrons snorting a powder that he assumes to be cocaine. When a young intern accidentally ingests too much of what turns out to be the horse tranquilizer ketamine, the narrator channels Whitman, ministering to the intern in the same way that he imagines the great poet tended to soldiers during the Civil War.
Subsequently, the narrator decides to change his project. Before, he planned to write a novel about an author who had fabricated correspondence with famous poets, a work, like Atocha, which examined issues of literary fraudulence and authenticity. After his Marfan experience, however, he generates another idea: a work that transcends genre, that attempts to represent his life as it was actually lived. “I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now,” he explains, “a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, 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.”
Does he succeed? In this, the reader must decide for their self. For me, watching the hermetic, bookishly brilliant novelist Lerner channel Whitman, one of our most expansive literary practitioners, brought a thrill that made the rest of the book feel retroactively worthwhile.
10:04, by Ben Lerner. New York, New York: Picador, October 2015. 256 pages. $16.00, paper.
Alex Gallo-Brown’s prose and poetry has appeared in publications that include Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Stranger, The Monarch Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle.