Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 30 Apr 2015 in Fiction |

BEN LERNER 10.04. Reviewed by Adrian Phoon

Tags: / / / / / /

10.04This new novel from the author of Leaving the Atocha Station presents a worldly and liberating take on modern fiction-writing.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 takes its title from Back to the Future, from the moment when lightning strikes a clock tower and sends Marty McFly, a captive in 1955, home to 1985. The title gives us little clue about the content of Lerner’s novel (though the main character, Ben, describes Back to the Future as an ‘iconic film of my youth’).
But it does give us a sense of the games afoot in this slippery, clever and multi-layered novel.

Here is the opening sentence:

The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.

Ben and his agent are walking along New York City’s High Line, before we are transported back a few hours earlier, when the pair are celebrating in Chelsea. A few paragraphs later, Ben explains the cause for celebration, by going back even further in time:

A few months before, the agent had emailed me that she believed I could get a ‘strong six-figure’ advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in the New Yorker; all I had to do was promise to turn it into a novel. I managed to draft an earnest if indefinite proposal and soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses and we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene.

Ben has won an advance to start writing his first novel. This first section is more than just an account of how he came to embark on writing the novel; it also forms the opening scene of that future work. After briefly retreating into the past, Ben slingshots us into the future, and sets up the premise for Lerner’s novel: this is a metafiction. It’s a novel about the making of a novel which may or may not be the one we are already reading.

10:04 inhabits what Ben refers to as ‘the very edge of fiction’. For the line between reality and fiction is never clear in this novel. We’re never sure how much of 10:04 comes from Lerner’s own life, nor how much will be included in the character Ben’s future novel. ‘Ben’ invites comparisons with Lerner himself. Both are poet/authors who have enjoyed critical acclaim before commencing this work. Both took up writing residencies in Mafa, Texas. Both wrote a New Yorker story called ‘The Golden Vanity’, which is reprinted in 10:04. But 10:04 is not autobiography. Instead it shows us how reality nourishes fiction.

Lerner’s novels typically obsess over the writing process, in all its tormented, unobvious divergences. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, gave us a poet named Adam, who procrastinates from writing as he prefers to idle away his residency in Spain in a haze of pills. Part of the book’s comedy involves seeing the lengths Adam goes to in order to avoid writing.

In 10:04, we see little of Ben actually writing. Yet somewhere in the messy profusions of daily life he acquires fodder for his art. He tutors an eight-year old boy named Roberto. His best friend, Alex, asks him to conceive a child with her through IVF. He wonders how this will affect his casual sleeping arrangement with an artist named Alena. He also gets diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition called Marfan syndrome. (The homonyms ‘Marfan’ and ‘Mafa’, site of his future writing residency, aren’t lost on him.)

Writing is never entirely solitary. It can draw on anything, from birth to death. Ben mulls on shards of information, thoughts, feelings and anecdotes, as well as encounters with strangers, acquaintances and intimates. At a literary function, he gets drunk at dinner with a famous author. She tells him a striking story from her childhood, about when her teacher returned to class after suffering a bereavement, one of those curious tales that writers carry around with them, haunting their imaginations. Now it will also haunt Ben.

At a food co-op, a coworker tells him how she came to learn in adulthood that her father – an Arab man who inspired her to take up Arabic studies at university – was not her biological father. Ben is similarly preoccupied by his complex affiliation to his literary forebears. Early on, he claims a connection to the poet Walt Whitman: ‘I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid,’ he enthuses. Later, he baulks at the historical Whitman’s perverse lust for death and destruction:

What disturbed me as I read [Whitman’s Specimen Days] was what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the delight he took in the willingness of young men to die for the union whose epic bard he felt he was destined to be, and his almost sensuous pleasure in the material richness of the surrounding carnage.

Ben seems manifestly unlike Whitman, a man tied to a particular time and place, rooted in war. Yet there’s a twist: for isn’t Whitman’s preoccupation with youth and death similar to Ben’s preoccupation with infancy and mortality – apparent throughout 10:04 – including that arresting image of the baby octopuses that have been massaged to death? What, then, is Whitman’s relationship to Ben? Is he a direct precursor to Ben – a role model Ben considers in retrospect – or just a famous predecessor who casts a long shadow over Ben’s thoughts?

In a virtuosic moment in 10:04, Ben explains how a speech by Ronald Reagan inspired him to identify as a poet. That speech, which eulogises the victims of the Challenger disaster, ends with a soaring vision:

‘We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye, and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God”.’

Ben realises that the vaulting lines that complete Reagan’s speech actually quote another poem called ‘High Flight’, written by a Canadian. In turn, the line ‘And touched the face of God’ from ‘High Flight’ derives from yet another poem, published three years earlier. What Ben regarded as his prime inspiration derives from a matrix of inspirations stretching through time.

10:04 is a wonderful, vertiginous and difficult novel that plays with its influences – WG Sebald comes to mind – as surely as it pays homage to them. Lovers of John Barth’s post-modern games, or of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s and Teju Cole’s prose, will find much to love in Lerner. In his writing, we sample what the critic Harold Bloom described as the ‘anxiety of influence’. But it is a testament to Lerner’s considerable talents that this anxiety seems less a cloistered domain of scholars than a worldly and liberating enabling condition for the 21st-century artist.

Ben Lerner 10:04 Granta 2014 PB 256pp $27.99

Adrian Phoon is a Sydney writer. He’s appeared in SameSame, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, New Matilda and a lot of karaoke bars. He tweets @highonprose.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.