Reading in the Present Tense: Ben Lerner's '10:04'

Ben Lerner is a true poet’s poet—a composer of bold, experimental verse—but his turn to fiction in the 2010s has proven him to be a critic’s novelist. The hero of his lauded debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), is an artist with a critic’s mind: a young poet who believes he is a fraud, and finds lines of poetry most moving when quoted in essays, where they no longer exist as poetry as such, but as re-contextualized “echo[es] of poetic possibility.” The unnamed narrator of Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, is also academic in his thinking and even, like Lerner himself, a working art critic. This novel, however, is even more academic and self-reflexive than the last one. It is a book that claims to recount the time of its own writing, and frequently blurs the lines between fiction, memoir, and criticism in the process.

10:04 opens with a striking epigraph, a Hasidic proverb about “the next world,” which is said to be identical to this one but still, somehow, “a little different.” It then moves to a grotesque scene in which the narrator and his literary agent gorge themselves on raw octopus. They are celebrating the “strong six figure” advance the narrator received from a “major house” for a novel he is supposed to be working on, which is to be an expansion of a well-received story he recently published in the New Yorker. As the book continues we learn more about the narrator’s life, which is basically identical to that of Ben Lerner. Both author and character hail from Topeka, Kansas, are alumni of Brown University, and currently reside in New York City, where they teach at Brooklyn College and write art criticism for various magazines. Author and character also both consider themselves poets, primarily, but are best known at this point in their careers for their critically acclaimed first novels. Differences emerge as well. The narrator, unlike Lerner, is unmarried. He has a heart condition that Lerner may or may not also have. Also, he has a complicated relationship with his female best friend, for whom he seems to feel unreciprocated romantic longings. We learn that this best friend, Alex, has asked the narrator to be the father of her child, but wants to conceive in vitro, stating that the alternative strategy would be “bizarre,” a choice of words that troubles the narrator.

Eventually the reader is shown the New Yorker story that earned the narrator his “strong six figure” advance. It is included in full, as a story within a story. It turns out to be “The Golden Vanity,” which Lerner published in the New Yorker in 2012 to wide acclaim, precipitating the book deal with Faber and Faber that eventually resulted in that imprint’s publication of 10:04. This story is written in the third person and features a character named “the author” whose life is nearly identical to that of the narrator—and so to Lerner as well—but is still, as the proverb says, “a little different.” The author, for instance, is worried about a brain tumor rather than a heart condition. When the novel returns to the main story, the narrator discusses the reasons he abandoned the plan of expanding “The Golden Vanity” into a novel, and the last half of the book follows the story of how 10:04 evolved from its initial concept into “the one I’ve written in its place for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction.” The narrator’s employment of the second person here to address the reader recalls Walt Whitman, a figure of major interest to the narrator. Clearly though, the reader cannot take the narrator’s account of the history of the book’s composition at face value. He is, we must remember, “a little different” than Ben Lerner.

In one scene near the middle of the novel, the narrator shares someideas about the differences between poetry and prose. “[P]art of what I loved about poetry was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain,” he says, “how the correspondence between text and world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself, what possibilities were opened up in the present tense of reading.” Here then, is one possible explanation for the book’s structure, which straddles the line between fiction and reality so self-consciously it threatens to become annoying, like a tedious game. By occupying a liminal space between fiction and nonfiction, Lerner might hope to liberate his writing from the “correspondence of text and world” that would situate it in a fixed, generic category and prevent its opening onto a “present tense of reading.” In this way, the novel can be a record not just of his playful imaginative flights, or his reflections on art, or of significant personal experiences, but all of these things together, with no borders between them.

I think the experiment works very well. It helps that the ideas, impressions, and stories Lerner wants to open onto the present tense are fascinating in themselves. The book’s layered structure functions as a scaffolding for its most interesting content, which proceeds by way of digressions. Some of these digressions, written in the first person, read like amazingly entertaining, loosely structured book reviews: the narrator taking either artworks or lived experiencesas raw material for interpretive flights that often reach lyrical levels intensity. The other form of digression, however, is more surprising.

There are several sections of this book where the narrator becomes totally absorbed in dialogue with other characters who relate incredibly intense, emotional narratives about their personal experiences. Often these stories share thematic concerns with the novel, involving the mutability of identity or the way fiction influences our experience of reality. But their more important function is, I think, formal. By catching his readers off guard, and dropping them into more conventionally structured forms of fiction, Lerner demonstrates the way narrative transforms our experience of time, causing everything in our fractured, complex world to momentarily lock into cohesion. The effect of meaningfulness one can acquire from narrative is moving in itself, independent of whether we, from a critical distance, decide that the story we have experienced is actually profound in any way.

This formal power of fiction is not something Lerner embraces uncritically, however. The way narrative unites people and lends coherence to experience is, I think, one of those currently “bad forms of collectivity” his narrator talks about transforming into “figures of its possibility” through art. In passages like this, Lerner seems unable to rid himself of the spectral notion that art might have some important political function, even if he is uncertain of what precisely this function is. If nothing else, he suggests there is value in art’s modest power to represent the world “a little different” from how we’re accustomed to seeing it. This might help us imagine alternative ways of living and being, or – if this proves too hard – might at least provoke us into recognizing that we want to be able to see these alternatives, revealing a hidden utopian longing that’s been with us all along. This is a classic idea of Frankfurt school critical theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, both of whom Lerner refers to often in his writing. What’s surprising, though, is to see these somewhat unfashionable, high modernist ideas explored in a novel with the same degree of rigor and clarity one would find in a critical essay.

10:04 is an engaging, entertaining, and relatable novel, but its uniqueness lies in the serious and open manner in which Lerner interrogates the social value of art. And for Lerner, the existence of this value is far from clear, a topic already addressed in Leaving the Atocha Station when, after a disappointing poetry reading, Adam reflects on the way the category or idea of art retains its importance, even in the face of failed artworks. “[W]hen I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.” In a society dominated by discourses of the “actual” which in this still new century have proven highly adept at describing the world’s problems but less so at fixing them, Adam suggests that art, through its very ambiguity and apparent social uselessness, might remain a repository for a dwindling resource: hope.

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