Guest Review: '10:04,' a Novel by Ben Lerner

Review by John Domini of Ben Lerner's latest.


September 10, 2014

I've been so enjoying The Sea-God's Herb, a recently-released collection of criticism by John Domini, that I wrote to ask John if he'd like to review something here. He kindly agreed.  --Churm


10:04. Ben Lerner. Faber & Faber / Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. September 2014. $25.


You might be wondering about the title. You might need a reminder that 10:04 provides the critical hour and minute in that madcap 1985 confection, Back to the Future. Marty McFly buzzed across the decades at 10:04 exactly. Granted, Ben Lerner’s ruminative and quite wonderful new text proves no Hollywood tomfoolery. It gets off bon mots entirely of the moment and yet works towards wisdom more durable — but still, early on, makes explicit a debt to those paired digits and zeros. They suggest portals, wormholes, and indeed 10:04 keeps turning up contexts in which things exist in more than one reality at a time. The book can’t be called science fiction; it’s more like anthropology, studying the mores of art-tribes in contemporary Manhattan and Brooklyn. Still, it makes you wonder.

Lerner is forever placing his narrator, Lerner-more-or-less, in bicameral devices. That is, the text achieves coherence by paradoxical means: by how reliably its protagonist’s experience will “dissect.” That verb itself recurs significantly, a tolling bell.

A key example comes midway, when our Author — unnamed, hence capitalized — claims he found his poetic calling in the worst sort of rhetorical pap. As a boy, he found himself improbably moved by President Reagan’s 1986 eulogy for the space shuttle Challenger. At the time of his recollection, in the 21st-Century present, our Author’s established the success of that calling, a New York up-and-comer. The book’s opening scene promises “a ’strong six-figure’ advance” for a novel, and this soon comes through, and it’s hardly his first literary accomplishment. But then, midway, our narrator recalls the eulogy and what it meant to him. Even as he speaks of lifelong inspiration, he admits that Reagan’s writer was the tin-eared Peggy Noonan, and that the closing poetic touch was a vainglorious iambic by a Canadian amateur: “the official poem, whatever that means, of the Royal Canadian Air Force.” Talk about bicameral! The muse holds hand with nausea — against a backdrop of tragedy.

A tragedy still contemporary, I should add, and this Author has others on his mind. Another reiterative element of 10:04 is the phrase “majesty and murderous stupidity,” which raises a warning about our consumer paradise. The fat advance isn’t the only luxury offered in the opening pages; there’s also the cornucopia of Whole Foods — a majesty and stupidity our planet can’t sustain. The Author’s meditations include an interview with a hypothetical child, who asks: “Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?” Indeed, the possibility of offspring, with its challenge to secure the future, emerges as another unifying element, and the actual author proves crafty enough to frame his disparate incidents between two catastrophes exacerbated by environmental abuse. He opens with Hurricane Irene, which threatened the city in late 2011, and closes with the more devastating Sandy.

One evening following the second storm, the narrator walks out of Manhattan’s power grid, down unlit streets to the Brooklyn Bridge. He lives the bicameral; his world becomes his book: “our faceless presences were flickering, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scene.”

Our Author survives the dark, along with the friend he’s now impregnated, overcoming his trepidation. So subdued a climax is in keeping with a drama that traffics primarily in wit, in particular the wit that turns up the same duality in detail after detail. These discoveries, it bears repeating, often delight, and if the process sounds more like poetry than a novel, of course Lerner is first a poet. He’s got three collections, a number of awards, and he’s also active as an editor and critic, mostly in New York, where he teaches at Brooklyn College. The author and his Author have much in common, and so another way to read 10:04 is as an extension of his melancholy yet spirited 2011 debut, Leaving the Atocha Station. There the city is Madrid, and the redemption of the world may reside in writing poems, rather than conceiving children, but there the personality in play is much the same, if only more down at heels and mad for sex.

Indeed, sex has something to do with how the new novel might be criticized. Another of the Janus-faces here would be the Author’s two sexual partners: one the friend Alex, who wants a baby and asks him to provide the sperm — she stipulates that “fucking you would be bizarre”— the other the lover Alena, brainy and artistic (her “Institute for Totaled Art” provokes insights no less than breathtaking). Still, neither woman gets out from behind the scrim of her observer’s sensibility. Alena seems almost bodiless, and though Alex is better realized, when her Author pal provides what she’s asked for, in a midtown clinic, the scene’s dry humor depends on his hyper-anxiety. The same Aspergerish disconnect afflicts his literary scores, treated antiseptically. God forbid the man show any ambition, any glee.

Such reticence, however, is an essential thread in the double helix of 10:04. If there’s a pervading suspense, it’s whether our central consciousness can get past his consciousness: whether he can engage the world with spine and heart. Thus no sustained passage offers such uplift as when the Author takes Roberto, an eight-year-old he’s tutoring, on a trip to the Museum of Natural History. As he imagines losing the boy, his tight windings go sproing in a way that’s brilliantly expressed yet perfectly recognizable:

How did this happen, I wondered, still catching my breath from the stairs, how is it that a thirty-three-year-old man who appears to meet most societal norms of functionality — employed (however lightly), sexually active (however irresponsibly), socially embedded (if unmarried and childless) — is in the grip of a fear so intense as to overwhelm reason as a result of taking a sweet kid to a museum?

Such moments don’t supplant the text’s thinking-man pleasures, but rather serve as fresh examples of the good thinking can do, beyond supplying First-Worlders with endless gratification. So too, Lerner’s acuity lances conventional notions of fiction vs. non-fiction, supplying another sort of fresh example, an artform “flickering” on the borderline. Marty McFly fades, and what appears in his stead may be the warm visage of W.G. Sebald.


John Domini’s latest book is The Sea-God’s Herb. A set of stories, MOVIEOLA!, will appear next year, and a novel in 2016.


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