What’s It About
10:04 is Ben Lerner’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Leaving the Atocha Station (I bought a copy of his début back in 2013 when it was nominated for a Believer Magazine Award. Though, like many other books that linger and loiter in my garage, I haven’t read it).
In 10:04 the unnamed narrator, who may or may not be based on Ben Lerner, is dealing with the success of his first novel. With New York publishes throwing money at him, the pressure is on to write a second book that meets theirs and the critics expectations.
Should I Read It?
Probably not. I found a good chunk of the novel to be a struggle. Part of that had to do with Lerner’s choice of words and the rhythm of his sentences (more of that in the commentary). And part of it was related to Lerner’s unnamed narrator, with all his neuroses and doubts. (I’m struggling here not describe him as Woody Allen-esque).
Having said that, Part Three of the novel is fantastic. This is where he meets graduate student Noor and hears her fascinating story, gives a brilliant speech at Columbia University dealing with collective communication and off-color jokes about the Challenger disaster and then has dinner with another writer where they discuss the ideas behind his new novel (a scene which should be dull but is really engaging). So while I’d normally never recommend that someone skip whole sections of a book, due to its fragmentary nature in this instance you won’t be missing much if you just read the middle and forget the rest.
As a commentary on the business of publishing, this seems all too cynical and accurate:
I asked my agent to explain to me once more why anybody would pay such a sum for a book of mine, especially an unwritten one, given that my previous novel, despite an alarming level of critical acclaim, had only sold around ten thousand copies. Since my first book was published by a small press, my agent said, the larger houses were optimistic that their superior distribution and promotion could help a second book do much better than the first. Moreover, she explained, publishers pay for prestige. Even if I wrote a book that didn’t sell, these presses wanted a potential darling of the critics or someone who might win prizes; it was symbolic capital that helped maintain the reputation of the house even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas or one of the handful of mainstream “literary novelists” who actually sold a ton of books. This would have made sense to me in the eighties or nineties, when the novel was more or less still a viable commodity form, but why would publishers, all of whom seemed to be perpetually reorganizing, downsizing, scrambling to survive in the postcodex world, be willing to convert real capital into the merely symbolic? “Keep in mind that your book proposal…” my agent said, and then paused thoughtfully, indicating that she was preparing to put something delicately, “your book proposal might generate more excitement among the houses than the book itself.”
10:04 has clearly resonated with a number of people, including critics, the New York Times (who ranked it as one of their top five books of 2014) and the Folio Prize judges. In particular both Alex Preston and Hari Kunzru, in their respective reviews of the book, compare Lerner to WG Sebald and praise the novel for its fragmentary nature, it’s ability to “dissolve” or “deform” the novel into something that’s compelling and heartbreaking. I, on the other hand, was less than impressed. Whereas Preston and Kunzru saw Lerner’s stylistic flourishes as playful and bold, I struggled to deal with the narrator’s choice of words and the rhythm and structure of the sentences. For me, they created this impression of a narrator so far up his own arse that the only time he ever saw light was when he opened his mouth. Or to put it more diplomatically – a tad pretentious.
Take this chunk of text as an example
I was alarmed by the thoroughness of what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation felt almost gaslighted, as if our encounter on the apartment floor had never happened. Here I was, still flush from our coition, my senses and the city vibrating at one frequency, wanting nothing so much as to possess and be possessed by her again, while she looked at me with a detachment so total I felt as if I were the jealous ex she’d wanted to avoid, a bourgeois prude incapable of conceiving of the erotic outside the lexicon of property. Maybe she’d separated from me only so she could reencounter me coolly, asserting her capacity to establish insuperable distances no matter our physical proximity.
I know that some will look at that passage and say, “what’s your problem, that reads fine to me and it’s so very clever.” But my eyes couldn’t help but stumble over words and phrases like “coition”, “dissimulation” and my personal favourite, “lexicon of property”. What makes it all the more irritating is that the novel is packed with these neurotic moments where the unnamed narrator can’t help but over analyse the motivation of others. Added to this, he agonises over his health, whether he’d be a good father and his struggles with the second novel. It should surprise no-one that he lives in New York.
Thankfully, the novel does improve immeasurably when Lerner’s narrator takes a step back and starts to engage with the world around him. There’s a brilliant moment where he meets a graduate student named Noor while volunteering at the Park Slope Food Co-op. Noor starts to tell the narrator her story, how her father was from Lebanon, how mother was Jewish and how she became involved in Boston University’s Arab Student Association. It’s a genuinely moving tale that is so markedly different to what’s come before that it feels like Lerner has cut and pasted this scene from another book. Also wonderful is the speech he gives at Columbia University. In an exploration on collective language and experience the narrator uses the Challenger disaster as a springboard, effortlessly marrying together Ronald Reagans’ televised address about the tragedy, his quoting… or misquoting… of John Gillespie Magee’s High Flight and the off-colour jokes that people started sharing hours after the disaster.
The last third of the book, however, returns to the narrators anxieties about the subject matter of his novel. It’s not as annoying as the first third, and some of the poetry is nice, but it culminates in the revelation… or awful joke… that the book you’re reading is the very novel he’s been kvetching about. It’s this sort of obnoxious self-awareness that stopped me from engaging with the book. Which is a shame, because there are moments of brilliance hidden among all the second-book anxieties and post-modern flourishes.