"A beautiful and utterly original novel about making art, love, and children during the twilight of an empire Ben Lerner's first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was hailed as "one of the truest (and funniest) novels. of his generation" (Lorin Stein, The New York Review of Books), "a work so luminously original in style and form as to seem like a premonition, a comet from the future" (Geoff Dyer, The Observer). Now, his second novel departs from Leaving the Atocha Station's exquisite ironies in order to explore new territories of thought and feeling. In the last year, the narrator of 10:04 has enjoyed unexpected literary success, has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition, and has been asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child, despite his dating a rising star in the visual arts. In a New York of increasingly frequent super storms and political unrest, he must reckon with his biological mortality, the possibility of a literary afterlife, and the prospect of (unconventional) fatherhood in a city that might soon be under water. In prose that Jonathan Franzen has called "hilarious. cracklingly intelligent. and original in every sentence," Lerner captures what it's like to be alive now, when the difficulty of imagining a future has changed our relation to our present and our past. Exploring sex, friendship, medicine, memory, art, and politics, 10:04 is both a riveting work of fiction and a brilliant examination of the role fiction plays in our lives"--
He is writing to us from another universe, which is actually all too familiar: it is the basically the same NY 'elite' art scene as ever--the Algonquin Round Table recirculated, retooled, but somewhat staler. Gallery openings, soirees hosted by famous editors attended by literary elite. Trips to museums and art-house theaters all of which provide food for the narrator to chew on and muse about. He supposedly holds a teaching position at a university, but when? one wonders, because we mostly see him perambulating the streets talking to his best friend, drinking too much wine with her. When he's not doing that he's sleeping with brilliant artists and attending counseling for his anxiety, and then going to doctor's appointments to diagnose his semi?-serious heart condition. We don't see him stressing about the cost of his treatments, nor complain about his dayjob: he doesn't bitch about his pay, he doesn't grouse about grading, doesn't mention the inordinate amount of messages from students. Once he meets a troubled student in his office to offer (spiritual?) counseling, but when he opens the office, he realizes he hadn't been there for most of a season, and had accidentally left the windows open.
His seeming lack of concern about money is explained on the first page: he has received a sizable advance on an unwritten book, and this has assuaged all monetary concerns. But as much of the book consists of reflections on periods of time prior to this windfall, and his bourgeois professional relationships (whose maintenance is incredibly expensive in NYC) predate his big-figure sum, it is safe to assume that this narrator has always had the luxury of not caring about money. Now he just REALLY has this luxury. When he grows tired of New York, he takes a funded residency in Marfa, TX where he mostly secludes himself, but where he also visits an art exhibit and a subsequent art party where he consumes too many drugs. He goes slightly mad and writes some terrible poetry about Mexicans on the roof, and he thinks about Walt Whitman's genius.
In other words this guy, Ben Lerner/his narrator is a WRITER and WRITING is his LIFE. His life is what he WRITES about, so he WRITES about WRITING and thinking about WRITING, and his troubles with WRITING, and people criticizing his WRITING, and how his familiars respond to their appearances in his WRITING, etc. He WRITES to blur the lines of fact and fiction, and then WRITES to tell you he is aware that he is doing this.
The world is suffering, and so his Ben Lerner's narrator, but not in the way the world is suffering. He is relatively immune from the world's suffering. The impending cataclysm threatening New York City doesn't arrive the first time and doesn't touch the narrator the second. He occasionally touches the suffering of others, as when he offers his shower to an Occupy protester, or volunteers at a local school, but mostly he is within himself, "dissecting" on the streets of NY, contending with the anxious-poetic logorrhea that makes up his inner monologue, waiting for "the world to rearrange itself around him."
He suffers from anxiety. And this is something the Ben Lerner writes about very well and believably: he effectively traces the contours of anxious thinking, and demonstrates (somewhat worrisomely) its aesthetic value, insofar as one concedes that his work has artistic worth.
Readers used to DFW (that unflinching writer of anxiety) may not approve this treatment of the subject. DFW's anxiety is never glamorized; it is always an impediment. DFW doesn't confuse his anxiety for his genius. In 10:04 the author so thoroughly confuses fact and fiction that one simply cannot tell what he is doing. If Lerner is speaking the truth about anxiety--and it seems to me at times he really does--then bless his heart for writing through it, and writing quite beautifully about it. But if it is fiction, and he is using anxiety as a ploy to display his neurotic genius (the very source of it!), then I am fairly off-put. It would be another annoying "writerly" [read: self-indulgent] exercise.
I really can't tell which it is, and this ambiguity makes the book much more interesting and complex. But I thoroughly sympathize with all who find Lerner annoying. I can see why. He's a self-obsessed, highly intelligent, privileged white male writing about New York City. How many portraits of New York by coddled, ivy-league educated aesthetes do we really need? Maybe we don't need one more. But it is "his" [read someone's] perspective, he's entitled to give it, some publisher bought it, and he renders it well. I suspect that the author has come to terms with the alienating aspects of his work, and the reader's annoyance is anticipated and part of the story.
The author/narrator of 10:04 is a sometimes author, not unlike Ben Lerner, who perhaps, despite his critical success as a novelist, continues to see himself as a poet, and more important to have a poet’s sensibilities or insensibilities. We follow the narrator across the course of a year from one inundating storm that wreaks havoc on the New Jersey and New York seaboard to another; bookends, if you will, that remind us of the mutability of even our seemingly most permanent cityscapes. The narrator is anxious, medically. But also existentially. He doubts himself and his comprehension, often rightly, without the surety of any fixed fulcrum from which to view change. That is a difficulty for the narrator as well as for the conceit of the novel since the oft repeated (in the novel) Hassidic story of the world to come says that, “Everything will be just as it is now, just a little different.” But what does that difference amount to if it cannot be confidently marked? Difference, on such a view, cannot be anything but perspectival, and that, inevitably, leads to the world to come being the world as it is, or was, or might yet be. To say that we have entered a liminal space would be an understatement.
Nevertheless, Lerner is able to generate an emotional bond with his reader at times that leaps across the barriers of arcane diction, post-modern anxiety about the novelistic form, and longed-for debts to prior poets. You may even experience, as the narrator does, more than one “lacrimal event,” which for the rest of us would be a tear or two.
Always worth reading, reflecting upon, then reading again. Recommended.
As for the narrative, such as it is, it seems to a gently ruminative fictionalisation of what appear to be genuine episodes in Lerner's life. At times it seems to resemble an episode of Seinfeld as much as anything; nothing much happens. The author's friend Alex wants him to be the sperm donator to her IUI baby; why she should want this seems unclear as the author appears to be feckless, nervous and paranoid. But it does lead down some interesting byways about modern family and parenthood - and the scene at the "mastabatorium" is both funny and, as I can attest having attended one of these facilities myself, true. Why do they always seem to employ such very attractive nurses?
To fund the process, the author intends to write a book. This is it we are reading now. Whether the advance was as massive as that suggested in the text, only Lerner and his agent can know. Partially this is because of a story printed in the New Yorker. Lerner had a story printed in the New Yorker. Its included here, as part of 10:04. You get the idea
There are a lot of references here to Back to the Future, including the title. Not having seen these films, I can't really comment on how these relate to the book but I'm sure everyone else will. None the less, even without this probably vital knowledge, I enjoyed 10:04 a lot more than I thought I would, whilst still occasionally noting how appropriate the term ivory towers would be for him and most of his characters
Can you accept that this novel is also (occasionally) cruel? Brutal? Deflating?
The most brilliant novel I’ve read this year. The most depressing novel I’ve read this year.
”Meta" is not usually in my vocabulary. But if here it is defined as "twisted turning to amuse the writer and reader in equal measure", then it works for this novel. The author has sold his second "prestige" novel for a six figure advance, based on his history: a critically acclaimed, low selling debut novel and an impactful New Yorker short story. His best friend, who is not his girlfriend, has asked him to be the father of her child by any means necessary. And so he converts the second novel into the fictionalized version of the real second novel.
He is diagnosed with Marfan syndrome (maybe, or an unruptured aortic aneurysm) and receives a fellowship to live for a short time in Marfa, Texas.
Somehow it all adds up to a pile of amusement and an intensely enriching vocabulary lesson, without snark.
The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe, NPR, Vanity Fair, The Guardian (London), The L Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement (London), The Globe and Mail (Toronto), The Huffington Post, Gawker, Flavorwire, San Francisco Chronicle, The Kansas City Star, and The Jewish Daily Forward.
It was also the winner of The Paris Review‘s 2012 Terry Southern Prize and a finalist for the 2014 Folio Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award.
It’s another that I found only ‘meh”. Again, I think perhaps I’m too old.
In the end this book is about love and art, intimacy and detachment, taking chances, and the ways in which transient moments of light and darkness (actual and metaphorical) change the world that is New York. I really loved the read for the most part. Every once in a while it got too pretentious even for me, but mostly it was a thing of beauty.
10:04 started off with a brilliant description of two friends preparing for the impending "storm of the century" and the subsequent "lunch-down-let-down" when the storm turns out to be not much of anything. The novel ends with another great description of Hurricane Sandy; again, preparation, waking up to discover little damage, but this time there has been a storm of the century, it just missed their neighborhood. Having lived through both storms and had similar experiences I loved how Lerner captured the odd excitement of preparing for something terrible and feeling almost (but not really!) ripped-off when nothing happens.
These two chapters were amazing. It was everything in between that drove me nuts. The writing was so self-conscious, it felt as if the author was attempting to try every new-age writing gimmick available, and it was tiresome. I also could do without the nine syllable words - I still read from paper, I don't need spend half my time looking up words I have never seen before. I am not impressed that you can use a thesaurus. Addressing the reader directly takes me, the reader, out of the story and into the zone of "annoyed". Placing a short story that is almost a retelling of the novel itself into the novel is a great teaching exercise ( now class, take this novel and turn it into a short story..) but here it seems like the author was being paid by the word.
There was some really brilliant stuff in the pages of this book, but there was also so much blather, and the two pretty much cancelled out one another.