Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is not at all a standard point A to point B novel, and yet this deeply self-referential work, circular in structure and layered with multiple narratives and characters that appear to be both fictional and real is generous and engaging: one never gets the sense that Lerner wants to alienate the reader with his ability to bend the story.
And the story seems almost mundane–a writer who lives (where else?) in Brooklyn, alternately referred to as the “I,” “the poet,” and the “he,” all resembling Lerner to a great degree, begins to enjoy great literary success but has difficulty writing the book that his agent wants him to write. He wants to write a false narrative about collecting his archive for a major university, told in epistolary form, while the agent has secured him a huge advance based on a short story he has written. The narrator/writer/poet/he is filled with self-doubt about his life and his writing, and, at the same time, faces the possibility of a serious–and deadly– medical condition, but for which there is no remedy except the anxiety of “watchful waiting.” His closest friend from college wants him to help her conceive a child, although she does not want to have a relationship with him beyond friendship. He tutors a young Hispanic child in a local public school, and together they write a short book about new discoveries in the science of dinosaurs, which the writer self-publishes as the culminating project of their work together which also includes an anxiety-filled field trip to the Natural History Museum–the narrator realizes that he could never be responsible enough to actually be a parent. He vacations with his family in Florida. He goes to a residency in Texas where he attempts to work on the manuscript of the novel, but instead writes a long narrative poem and also begins to appreciate–and actually has an epiphany about–the sculpture of Donald Judd. Two hurricanes threaten New York–never named, but certainly echoes of Sandy and Irene–and within all these narrative threads, there is a sense of things projecting into the future that are resonances of the past. Walt Whitman, another notable Brooklyn poet, wanders in and out of the text, not only because the narrator is preparing to teach a course on Whitman, as long as his possibly fatal medical condition stays dormant, but also because Whitman becomes an invisible guide between the past, present,and future, emptying himself out for all readers across time as Lerner succeeds in doing.
There are also many different texts within the novel–a short story, “The Golden Vanity,” that appeared in the New Yorker, excerpts from the long poem he writes during his residency, the short book he puts together with the young public school student, and a third-person section about having his wisdom teeth extracted. All of this could be potentially enervating, and yet Lerner writes with such precision about the flux of time within this interweaving of narratives: “it was as if the little flame in the gas lamp he paused before were burning at once in the present and in various pasts, in 2012 but also in 1912 or 1883, as if it were one flame flickering simultaneously in each of those times, connecting them.” The 10:04 of the novel refers to the movie, Back To the Future, the time at which the hands of the clock stopped when the main character Marty returned to 1985.
And then this: “Instead of fabricating the author’s epistolary archive, earning my advance, I was writing a poem, a weird meditative lyric in which I was sometimes Whitman, and in which the strangeness of the residency itself was the theme. Having monetized the future of my fiction, I turned my back on it, albeit to compose verse underwritten by a millionaire’s foundation. The poem, like most of my poems, and like the story I’d promised to expand, conflated fact and fiction, and it occurred to me–not for the first time, but with new force–that part of what I loved about poetry was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain, how the correspondence between text and world was less important that the intensities of the poem itself, what possibilities of feeling were opened up in the present tense of reading.” Later, he writes, “It and everything else I hear tonight will sound like Whitman, the similarities of the past, and those of the future, corresponding.” Here is the crux of the “novel”: what matters is the relationship between writer and reader, not genre, and not even the reflection of the writer’s notion of the world. This is so deeply Whitmanian that it actually took my breath away.
So reading 10:04 is an experience not like any novel I have ever read before, and one that at first I may have been doubtful of–again, another book that sat on my shelf for more than a year. But the depth of Lerner’s writing, so often suddenly and surprisingly evocative, drew me into the work, as much as poetry does, that opening up of lyric possibilities that transcend the text, the words, and the story. I am looking forward to reading Lerner’s short work, “The Hatred of Poetry,” perhaps yet another sideways genre leap, this time into criticism, also sure to be compellingly different.