10:04: A Novel

by Ben Lerner

Hardcover, 2014

Call number

FIC LER

Collection

Genres

Publication

Faber & Faber (2014), Edition: First Edition, 256 pages

Library's review

This is the kind of book that will either drive you mad, or force you to read and re-read until you unlock all of its layered connections and mysteries (which may result in driving you mad anyway). The title refers to the hour/minute time that the lightning strikes the courthouse in the movie “Back to the Future”, allowing the protagonist (Marty) to return to his present time. Lerner relishes language and the life of the writer. He embeds poetry from Walt Whitman, poems written by one of the novel’s characters thinking about Whitman, correspondence between poet William Bronk and possibly fictional characters, the outlines of a novel reconstructing made up correspondence between same, an entire story co-written with a teenage boy whom the novel’s protagonist is mentoring (complete with pictures of the dinosaurs which are the central plot), and relationships that flit between various versions of the characters (it is difficult to figure out which characters are the fictional characters created by the first person narrator and the different “possible” futures ascribed to all (I know that’s vague, but welcome to “10:04”). As the epigraph for the book (apparently one that Giorgio Agamben recounts, as told by Walter Benjamin to Ernst Bloch): “The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here… Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member reganrule
In 10:04, Ben Lerner's narrator tells the reader that his audience is the "second person plural" and he means this in the way that Walt Whitman used it when he said: "I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;/I project myself--also I return--I am with you, and know how it is." But Ben Lerner's narrator is no Walt Whitman; he has replaced Whitman's emphatic and expansive "I" with an anxious "I" that can barely project himself beyond the moment, much less into many future generations. Whitman was an everyman, who speaks to and about everyman lives and issues. Not so Ben Lerner's narrator, who is perhaps like everyman insofar as he errs and has comical lapses in judgment, but who otherwise walks the rarefied gambit of NYC's literary and visual art world. His world, in other words, is a world far removed from the masses. He understands others exist, vaguely, and maybe feels himself stirred (from time to time) by the IDEA of connecting with others, but mostly the masses serve as urban backdrop to his heady ruminations about his own work and writerly process.

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.
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LibraryThing member mjlivi
Pretentious meta-(non)fiction, loaded with overwrought vocabulary and little in the way of plot. And yet I loved it.
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
You can’t help but be a little bit in awe of Ben Lerner’s deftness, his complex weave of images — imminent flooding that will reshape the Manhattan shoreline, the transition to fatherhood (possibly), time’s incessant beat and its echo in the past, the book he contracted to write and the book he has written — that turn in upon themselves, multiply and become something new. Frankly, you can’t help but be a little bit in awe of his vocabulary, a diction so rich and varied and sometimes abstruse that you might wonder whether he also talks this way (he does!). Some of the writing here is so measured and perfect that it constitutes a prose poem. And you will be brought to pause and think and revel, just a little bit.

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.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
When reading "Leaving The Atocha Station", Lerner's first book, I was frequently seized by the urge to grab the protagonist by the lapels, and give him a good shake. Followed by a hearty slap. I felt the same urge with "10:04" although less frequently. Probably because I laughed a lot more. There are some very funny moments in 10:04; "The Picture of Sacha Grey" an art instillation referencing the Picture of Dorian Grey, but in an appropriately modern context is hilarious on at least three different levels; the party guest carefully cutting two lines of coke, and then snorting the undivided remainder had me snorting with laugher myself. the whole idea of the bourgeois middle cast providing shower and bathroom facilities for Occupy protesters (but otherwise not changing their life in any way) would be absurd if wasn't probably true. As would the baby octopi being gently massaged to death with salt

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
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
A friend told me she thought his writing was like Knausgaard (My Struggle), and Lerner has even written a review of My Struggle, so I thought I'd read this, which otherwise I don't think I would have. I found it disappointing, a bit pretentious, self-absorbed, and tedious in places. All of which adjectives have been applied to Knausgaard, but he (Knausgaard) is a far more talented and captivating writer.… (more)
LibraryThing member alexrichman
I'd avoided this, Lerner's difficult second novel, because I feared the meta narrative - about a young author struggling to write his difficult second novel - would be too much to bear. I needn't have worried. The book is a series of vignettes which are beautifully, densely written without ever really catching fire. Midway through the book I realised I was really enjoying it, but by the end I realised it was the thrill of being inside the narrator's head rather than anything in particular he had to say.… (more)
LibraryThing member icolford
10:04, Ben Lerner’s follow up to the brilliant Leaving the Atocha Station ramps up the irony and the navel gazing. The narrator--a New York-based writer whose identity is so intricately intertwined with author’s as to be one and the same--has recently experienced three momentous life events: he has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition, a close friend has asked him to help her conceive a child, and a story he has written has been accepted by the New Yorker and a publisher is giving him a big advance to expand the story into a novel. The narrator is intelligent, observant and deeply ruminative, given to lengthy consideration of the scene before his eyes, internalizing and making conceptual leaps that often trigger even more involved reflection and questioning. The action is episodic and offers up a few brilliant set pieces, such as the scene in the fertility clinic and, much later, a hallucinogenic sequence that takes place at a writing retreat in Marfa, Texas, that ends with the narrator joining one of the other writers on a late-night quest for UFOs. The New York setting is electric with detail and buzzing with activity and characters: the narrator’s many friends and others who pass quickly through the action. Chronologically, 10:04 is set at a time when New York City was besieged by a series of storms, culminating in Hurricane Sandy, which struck in October 2012. But this is a book that is just as concerned with the past and the future as it is with the present day. The narrator has a number of fixations that emerge intermittently into the story: Walt Whitman, the movie Back to the Future and the Challenger disaster among them. The narrator is so consumed by looking back and looking forward that one begins to visualize the novel as a mark on a continuum, lying at a point somewhere between Whitman and an indefinite future moment that Lerner is beckoning or trying to evoke. In the end, an argument can be made that this is a novel about identity in a modern world that presents so many distractions and diversions that the integrity of the individual is threatened. Lerner seems to be asking how we can pursue our own agendas (in the novel, these are most often artistic in nature) when the community is relentless with its demands, the past filled with regret and the future uncertain. His investigation of these issues is often fascinating, but Lerner asks a lot of the reader. 10:04 does not offer the rewards of a conventionally plotted novel and might even be a pretentious and grievous miscalculation on the part of the author. But the only way to find out is to read it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Randall.Hansen
Maybe I am just not hip enough to get the humor in this novel -- which has been lauded fairly highly -- but to me, this book was like one long New Yorker short story, with cute little techniques, such as a short-story within the novel and a self-published book about dinosaurs within the novel. A story of a young writer and his various interactions while living his life and pursuing his craft. Didn't do it for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member kbullfrog
Poetic and beautiful, confluence of art and life in NY. Timelessness. I rate is three star because it seemed more an essay than book, and did not have that particular classic quality I will forever remember. It is a good read for a quick couple of days in NY
LibraryThing member debnance
Want to read a novel that is surprising? Clever? Thoughtful? Vivid?

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.
LibraryThing member asxz
Hmm… the future of the novel? I hope not. I like a good story. This was not without merit and there were some neatly defined ideas but it left me a little unfulfilled.
LibraryThing member oldblack
I related very well to the basic premise of the main character's life: that he has "an asymptomatic idiopathic condition incidentally discovered" which is potentially capable of producing rapid fatality with minimal warning. That said, novels written by poets tend to go over my head, and this is no exception. I understand there are lots of references to art, literature and events embedded in this book, but I didn't see most of them. The symbolism was lost on me. There were lots of words I had to look up. Some of the abstract concepts were quite challenging for me. However, despite all of those reservations, I did enjoy this book. I warmed to the basic plot ideas, and I could understand just about all of the characters (Character 'Ben' says about his echocardiogram to check his risk of aortic dissection "I feared the test more than the dissection because I feared the surgery more than death.") It wasn't a perfect book for me but I reckon it's left a positive enough taste that I may go on to try his "Leaving Atocha Station". Creative? Yes, but a million miles ahead of another 'creative' novel I just finished with, Kennedy's "Serious Sweet".… (more)
LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
To give this books its due, I will note that it was named “One of the Best Books of the Year” by:
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.
3½ stars
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LibraryThing member grebmops
Annoying and brilliant in equal measures.
LibraryThing member traumleben
I suspect this is one of those books that's brilliantly written, but my lower rpm brain probably needs another pass or two to see that for myself. A novel written by a poet, Lerner puts together some beautiful and at times dense prose. You'll have to look up a word or two as well, which is always fun. An author writing about an author's authorial experience is a meta rich reading experience. The plot unwinds as the narrative progresses, but that may be by design. Lerner really does an excellent job of looking at identity and nature of time. Like any sophisticated work of art, it's worth revisiting, no matter how well you think you get it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Narshkite
This is a very New York book, a very Jewish book, a very meta book, and a very literary book. There is no real plot, except that life and friends matter and being a mensch matters, even though it also makes you a neurotic mess if you are doing it right. That works for me, but I understand why some people would not value the read.

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.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
"Say that 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 non-fiction, but a flickering between them"

”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.
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Pages

256

ISBN

0865478104 / 9780865478107
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