Ben Lerner, 2014
Often when I begin a book by an author I’m unfamiliar with it may take me 30-50 pages to warm up to the author’s style and voice. The cadence of the language, the approach to themes, and tone are all particular traits that distinguish one book from another. It may require some time for a book to reveal its distinct beauty and promise. Going against this norm Ben Lerner’s 10:04 immediately drew me in with a uniquely profound and timely narrative voice that presented the all to common and farcical contradictions of post-millennial cosmopolitan anxiety and tension.
The initial allure of this book was the self-deprecating snarky voice of the narrator who obviously enjoys poking fun at the ridiculous contradictions of modern New York life while self-abashedly acknowledging that he is part of the ridiculous culture he is poking fun at. The opening pages describe an amusing scene as the narrator, an author, as he is walking with his agent in the gentrified and once-former warehouse district that is now a refurbished railroad track transformed into a park-amphitheater where pedestrians view the surrounding city traffic steps away from restaurants that serve gently massaged octopus, the world’s most intelligent invertebrate. 10:04 is clearly a New York story, but its themes and concerns apply to any major American city’s current problems, including my very own San Francisco.
The authorial narrator is a Kansas transplant to the big city who eschews his roots for the excitement and possibility of city life. He lives in a tiny apartment with the luxury of an in-unit washer and dryer, he invests his time and paychecks at a plethora of trendy bars imbibing artisanal cocktails and mockingly appreciating the faux historical decor. He is a member of a food coop where he works a few hours a month to take advantage of the discount prices and he self congratulates himself for allowing an Occupy Wall Street protester into his apartment for the use of his shower and laundry. This is a narrator who is amusingly conflicted with anxiety about his recent diagnosis of a rare but seemingly benign heart condition while his unemployed best friend repeatedly asks him to contribute sperm as a surrogate father all while he begins dating a woman who has developed a scheme to collect damaged art from insurance agencies.
This is clearly a voice of the current modern city life and I found myself frequently chuckling along throughout my reading at the ridiculous reflection of reality on these pages. Even though the story is distinctly New York in its setting and characters, the themes that poke fun at trendy foodie haunts and gentrified neighborhoods are spoken from a voice that is clearly of this age and one that needs to be told and read as a presentation of current day city life. For instance, reflect on this passage about the collective over reliance on smart phones as an alienating experience:
“As I read I experienced what was becoming a familiar sensation: the world was rearranging itself around me while processing words from a liquid-crystal display. So much of the most important news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by the smartphone while I was abroad in the the city I could plot on a map, and could represent spatially, the major events, such as as they were.” (31-33)
The title itself, 10:04, is an allusion to the relationship of significant pop-culture references to personal identity. 10:04 is the time in 1955 that Marty McFly and Doc harnessed the energy of the lightening to achieve time travel in the narrator’s favorite movie, Back to the Future. The movie represents an opportunity for the narrator, an author within the narrative of this book, to explore the themes of time, circumstance, and repetition. He ruminates on the moment in Back to the Future when Marty’s family fades from the Polaroid photograph, indicating that small moments in history have impact on the outcome of the future.
The reflections on this theatrical moment provide an opportunity for the narrator to reflect on the many moments of his own life and inspire him to write a short story wherein “everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” His short story is about a neurotic author who has recently been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and who lives pretty much the same life as himself. The first chapter of the book 10:04 ends with the narrator exploring this proposal and the second chapter begins anew, with the exact proposal being lived out in a new story. I found this transition artfully pleasing since I read a lot of magical realism style writing: the transition from narrator describing a possible story that was a twist on real life opened a potentially labyrinthian cornucopia of stories within stories. This narrative pleasure was further enhanced by the following passage that depicts the short story narrator’s rumination on memory and its relationship to writing:
“Would you know what he meant if the author said he never really saw her face, that faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of bundling features in the memory , even if that memory was not projected into the present, onto the area between the forehead and chin? … And sometimes these features did briefly integrate into a higher order unity as letters integrate into words, words into a sentence. But like words dissolving into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and plots, combining these elements into a face required forgetting them, letting them dematerialize into an effect.” (68)
Moments such as the passage above within 10:04 portray the great potential of this book. However, as I had alluded to in my opening to this review, 10:04 was unique to my typical warm up to a writer’s style and unfortunately the promising start that excited me in the early pages quickly dissipated. I was tongue in cheek amused by the transition from chapter 1 to chapter 2 as a playful exploration of the magical with authorial relationship to the world within the world of text, but the movement towards chapter 3 failed to take the conceit further.
The third and all subsequent chapters returned to the world of the first chapter and illuminated that the second chapter wasn’t an exercise of magical realism but rather a conceited opportunity to reprint Ben Lerner’s short story previously printed in the New Yorker magazine. Although I had enjoyed that story, I felt that I had been duped. There was so much opportunity for whimsical playfulness with the ideas of a world that is as it is now, just a little different but Lerner failed to explore that playfulness and decided to return to the original ideas grounded in the conflicted realities of the world of gentrification and reliance on technology. Perhaps I read too much translated literature that successfully and artistically experiments with the potentials of literary potential, because as I continued on with the book I kept telling myself how unimaginatively American this story was.
As much as I had found myself identifying and enjoying the company of the narrator of 10:04 early on in the book in the later chapters I found myself increasingly annoyed with the persona and choices of the same narrator. What’s more is that the narrator frequently confessed to lack of depth to this novel in an indirect way by repeatedly complaining about his own lack of authenticity in the novel within the novel that he was working on. He meets with his agent to pitch the idea of a book that is a slightly altered version of his own life and his agent tells him that the idea of the book will be easier to sell than the actual book. When he finally commits to becoming the surrogate father with his best friend, he is forced to break off his relationship with his sometime girlfriend and he is startled by her lack of commitment towards him. I wasn’t surprised by her lack of interest or emotional connection to him because he had failed to present her as an emotionally engaging person worth caring for. That interaction between the girlfriend not caring about the breakup highlights the core emptiness of this book: much of the action depicted in 10:04 is really just conversation between the narrator and the people around him. The only real events that occur are actually retellings of a passing character’s past experiences and other than donating his sperm for surrogate fatherhood, the narrator hardly does anything substantial for anyone other than himself. It is as if everyone around him is less a person and more an opportunity to be exploited through written retelling of their verbal stories.
There is a great emptiness that is revealed in this book and perhaps the only redeeming value to the novel of 10:04 is that it does authentically capture the inauthenticity and alienating nature of modern living in a world of increasingly disconnected over-sharing and throw-away relationships. There isn’t much here and perhaps that is the point.
Aside from the potential thematic intent that this book is an accurate reflection and portrayal of modern life, I found myself extremely let down by 10:04. There were a few redeeming moments, including a comical depiction of the narrator’s over anxious experience while donating sperm at the clinic, but the majority of the latter half of the book was filled with annoyance and disappointment. As the narrator travels to Texas on a retreat to teach and write he gets caught up with a very New York crowd at a debaucherous party while having nothing to do with the Texans that surround him. And as the story began to wane on my interest I found myself becoming easily annoyed at Lerner’s thesaurus inspired word choices such as the overly academic overuse of “lacrimal event” to describe moments of crying and repeated use of the word “dissect” in a context that failed to meet any common dictionary reference of that word’s meaning.
This book was greatly celebrated and if one only reads the first 80 pages the celebration is justly deserved. However it is apparent that this book was a semi-autobiographical idea that started great and unfortunately had no where to go but inward. This is really a short story idea that was unfortunately dragged indefinitely on into the realm of the novel format and would have been better off if it let the good ideas remain as they were without attempting to portray them as they are but slightly different.
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