10:04 by Ben Lerner

After reading many, many translations, I am attempting to catch up with developments in mainstream American prose; i.e., the “big names” in American fiction. The last book I read in this vein was The Flamethrowers, which I liked to a point.

Now up, Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04.

I view this book as a very ambitious failure. If we are to believe the backstory presented in the book itself—that it grew out of a story published in The New Yorker on June 18, 2012—then it was written extremely quickly, maybe in as little as a year. Perhaps Lerner should have been allowed more time.

I found 10:04 to be a book that has a pretty interesting organizing idea, and some interesting conceits along the way, but that, for me, never really rose past the level of cleverness. I think after the surprise success of Leaving the Atocha Station Lerner wanted to do something really big, which I admire and respect, but it seems like he bit off a little bit too much. Or, at least, too much for the time allotted to him.

One of my issues with 10:04 is that it tries to implicate many, many, many contemporary phenomena, but it offers no new thoughts on the things it brings into play. The effect, then, is a lot of name-dropping and striving for relevance (whether intentional or not), but very little actual relevance or substance that will endure past this present moment.

For instance, the thoughts that the book presents on, say, the ethics of purchasing your produce from a fair trade co-op are probably more or less the same thoughts you’ve had about the same matter: namely, it’s wrong to feel superior because you are doing so, but nevertheless it makes you feel a little good to do it. Maybe you’re not saving the world, but it’s better than being one of those people who buy their food at Whole Foods, and the produce is pretty high quality, after all.

This is fine, but I think we need to expect a lot more out of our authors. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom is the common level of analysis for so many things one finds in 10:04: the Occupy movement, climate change, YouTube, email, texting, smart phones, globalization, the ethics of being a middle-class white male, etc, etc. These things are not observed as if anew in Lerner’s pages; they’re simply rendered in a very banal, 2014 way. Nor are they brought into particularly interesting juxtapositions or plot situations. For instance, in one extended reflection, Lerner remembers all the places he received important, possibly life-changing messages via his iPhone, and how his experience of those places has become subtly altered by that fact. You’ve probably experienced this yourself, in just the same way, and thought the very same things.

Another key point about 10:04 is its voice, or tone. Lerner has a pretty interesting idea here: across the sweep of the book’s five sections, he wants to move from irony to sincerity. So the book starts out with a very arch, cynical tone, and it ends up with a highly sincere one, perhaps reflecting the spiritual development of the protagonist.

This is a nice idea, but I don’t feel like Lerner pulls it off. There was much in 10:04 that grated on my ears; for instance, Lerner repeatedly referring to “crying” as a “lagrimal phenomenon.” I can appreciate that a certain amount of this is intended to sound stuffy or pretentious, and that in order to be in on the joke you have to be aware that Lerner is purposely writing in that way in order to send up that sort of writing, but in the end it just sounded stuffy and pretentious to me. I gather that Lerner, as a human being, is neither. He seems like an extremely dedicated, very decent person, insofar as I can tell from the traces he’s left on the Internet. He is clearly a smart person who can write—his critique of Knausgaard in the LRB was excellent. But still, the tone of this book grated on my ears far too often, and I don’t think the fact of it supposed to be doing that can save it.

I also didn’t find the journey of the protagonist particularly believable. In fact, 10:04 is strangely deprived of much human emotion. The idea of this book is that Lerner is going to bury himself in a bunch of fictive versions (or “transpositions”) of facts from his own life. So each of the five sections of 10:04 will be based on the same things about Ben Lerner the actual person, but they all will be shifted in certain ways so that it won’t actually be him.

This is an interesting tactic, but in my read of 10:04 it had the unfortunate side effect of making me feel that nothing said in the book ever was authentic. For instance, a little past halfway there’s a very nearly affecting paragraph where Lerner ranges through all of the anxiety-related issues he (or “he”) experienced as a young man. This paragraph almost meant something to me, until I realized that—because of the very architecture of the book—I had no idea if Lerner himself (or even “Lerner” the character in 10:04) had experienced any of this. So what might have been a very touching and brave series of admissions just because another cloud of smoke, of which all of this book seems to be made (or, even worse, seems to want to be made). This is a rather big flaw for me because 10:04 makes one of its main objectives its movement toward sincerity.

I also have to fault 10:04 for some clumsy execution. No doubt, Lerner can pen a nice sentence, but too much of this book feels like a draft. Much of the dialogue in 10:04 is very wooden; it reads like nothing more than so many words in characters’ mouth so that Lerner can get out of the scene what he needs. In my read, none of the book’s secondary characters felt that they had any authentic life to them.

A far worse offense is that Lerner makes a habit of tying the book together in clumsy ways: early on, he recalls that most people his age learned that Pluto was a planet, but it no longer is, demoted to a plutoid; roughly 100 pages later he reflects on his stalled maturation with the line that he was no more an adult than Pluto was a planet. Such recycling of themes and stock phrases abound. Or, in the book’s first section, Lerner attempts to harness together a portrait of Joan of Arc and a still from Back to the Future, because both exhibit hands that are mysteriously fading away. This very, very nearly works, but I think Lerner muddled the logic of his comparison. What’s worse is that, in comparing Joan of Arc and Michael J. Fox, he goes out of his way to underline the key phrase “pulling us into the future.” And then, just a few pages later, there is a photo of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger tragedy, captioned “pulling us into the future.” The effect is to completely spoon-feed his point to us. And then, these words are repeated again and again throughout the book. It feels much too forced, and, well, clumsy.

As I mentioned, I have to give Lerner credit for his ambitions in this novel. In an admirable bit of honesty, 10:04 explains to us that Lerner was given quite a lot of money to write it. (This is one of the few admissions in the book that I feel I can actually trust.) Surely it is accurate to say that his publisher was depending on him to deliver something that brought, if not sales, at least much prestige to the house. That is quite a bit of pressure to be placed under, and one sympathizes with Lerner for attempting to respond to it by creating a book that summarizes our contemporary situation while attempting to say something meaningful about our past and our future. One of the nicest things about 10:04 is Lerner’s candor about his place in the machinery of commercial New York publishing. He is very honest with the fact that he is a chip on some conglomerate’s scorecard, an investment that may pay off—or, if not, a write-off to be quickly forgotten.

I give Lerner high credit for being willing to imply how ridiculous such bidding wars and advances are, as well as his willingness to deconstruct and criticize the idea of buying the papers of novelists such as Lerner (which apparently is being done more and more by institutions of higher education). It is no slight to Lerner or any of his generation to admit that it is much too early to tell whose papers will be worth owning and whose will not, and surely such money could be better spent on less sexy projects. It is good of Lerner to be honest enough to admit this and deconstruct it, even as he is benefiting and (to an extent) subservient to these very people he is gently ridiculing.

I can sympathize with 10:04 as a very sincere, and even in some ways brave attempt to respond to the great amount of pressure Lerner was placed under by his huge advance and the hopes that his publisher had placed on him; however, I do not think that the book reaches the ambitions it aspires to. 10:04 exhibits a very lot of cleverness: sketches of ideas that still require the hard work of refinement, expansion, and development to make them into pure gold. In one of the book’s more inspired stretches, an artist that Lerner is dating gets an auction house to give her a number of artworks that have somehow been destroyed as part of their continual shipment around the world, attendant to their role as high-value commodities. These destroyed works have been legally declared to have a value of $0, and they are kept in cold storage (perpetually, one imagines). Her plan, once she has them, is to exhibit them. This idea, one of many in 10:04 that seethe with potential, is left behind after a few pages, nothing more than a still-born embryo. It is never permitted to grow into itself—instead, Lerner casually harnesses it to one of the book’s central themes, and then, apparently satisfied, leaves it there in its confinement.

Given the circumstances of 10:04’s creation and the responsibility placed upon Lerner’s back, it is impressive that he has attempted to create something that is clearly not bending beneath the imperatives of a mainstream audience. Whatever 10:04 is, it is not a book that attempts to be easy or to cater to a mass audience. In other words, it is a substantial rebuke to the very people who placed in him their trust (or, at least, their dollars; perhaps it amounts to the same thing). Although, neither is it that difficult. For all the temporal and thematic shifting, it’s easy to follow and can be comfortably read in a weekend. I would classify it somewhere in the range of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, albeit at half the size.

I did not find 10:04 an innovative book so much as a book that artfully deploys a number of well-worn strategies of innovative literature, but without ever feeling that Lerner has made any of them his own or taken any of them to a new level. It is pleasingly written if not particularly inspired, save for a few good paragraphs here and there. Lerner has indeed brought together a number of interesting elements, things that do have some potential and that may go together in interesting ways—good ideas, but not enough execution.

After having read this book, I’m eager to read Leaving the Atocha Station, which I feel will be good in many of the ways that 10:04 did not work for me. And I do hope, and feel, that Lerner can get past the sophomore slump with his third novel. It seems that sales of 10:04 have been robust so far, so surely he will will get a crack at novel number 3 before long. And, lastly, for a much more enthusiastic take on 10:04, see Jeffrey Zuckerman in The Quarterly Conversation. I also thought Hari Kunzru’s review in The New York Times was a smart one, although the Sebald comparison is, in my opinion, forced.

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