Written for the National Book Review
Ben Lerner’s semi-autobiographical, contemporary novel, 10:04, is a story for the ages. It encapsulates our current, societal norms, while commenting on art and literature and their function in our world. The author takes a stab at removing himself from his own story and creating a fiction, while simultaneously pointing the reader toward who Ben Lerner actually is as a nonfictional person. Lerner plays with layers of fiction and nonfiction, as well as the relationship between the reader and the writer. Ultimately, Lerner begs the questions, what does it mean to be alive in our time, and are we responding to and participating in our stories properly? Lerner leaves the reader begging for more and critiquing ourselves as agents of art and literature in our contemporary world.
First and foremost, Lerner takes a bird’s eye view of his own life, making readers question his reliability and authenticity. He delivers stories of the people around him, as if he’s playing with voice and potential plots that real life Ben Lerner has always wanted to write about. In all of these peripheral stories, he narrates them in the first person as if he’s always wanted to try on those voices and write about those stories. But they are brief, and after delivering these stories, Ben the character makes academic, and at times anthropological critiques of the story he’s told. While at first, reading these remarks can seem elitist, almost trite of Ben Lerner the author, what he’s actually doing is eloquently presenting how people of his class, race, and time view society. On one level, the narrator is ironically distancing himself from the story he’s been presenting and sharing a critique of that story with the reader, but on a second level, Ben Lerner the author is ironically distancing himself from the novel 10:04, while simultaneously inserting himself directly in the novel. He’s created this fantastic paradox of being himself while also being slightly different, a theme that occurs over and over again in the novel.
This paradox is addressed from the epilogue of the novel, which is that “everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” This theme is the root of the entire novel, as the narrator Lerner is presumably the same although slightly different from the author Lerner, however there is an implicit idea that what we as readers and as humans are in alternative worlds, times, and stories, is the same but a little different. In addition to this overarching paradox of the plot, Lerner deals with time and the paradoxes that arise in being present while experiencing the past and the future. He weaves several colloquial displays of the future in fiction into his novel. He seems, or at least his narrator seems, fixated with several pieces of history that deal with time. The first is the film Back to the Future. This movie, much like this novel, toys with the idea of time and what it means to be presently living in both the past and the future. Even the title, Back to the Future, suggests a paradox of traveling back in time, to the future.
The second piece of history is the exploding of the 1986 Challenger. Lerner explores this idea when the narrator delivers a speech to Columbia students about fiction and poetry. He describes how even Ronald Reagan’s famous speech after the explosion included lines from Magee’s High Flight, which includes inspiration from a poem by Cubert Hicks, which may have been inspired by poems in Icarus. All of this is to say that words and art and poetry can live on through multiple time periods. All of these authors have found ways to be in the present moment, a different present from when they were first written, a future from when they were first written. At first in Regan’s speech, and now in 10:04, their words are revisited each time they are read by a new reader, and each time in the future, then the present, then the past.
In addition to literature as a vehicle to time travel, Lerner discusses displacement in a world of literature and art where at one point we are living in a nonfiction but at another, fiction. While lots of contemporary novels of our time are concerned with how to better live in the present, nonfiction stories of our lives, Lerner is proposing an alternative. In a time where things seem to be going wrong around us, how can we change the narrative? How do we escape from our nonfiction lives? For Ben Lerner, it is poetry and storytelling. The stories the narrator shares with the readers are heavy, sometimes catastrophic. This is in stark contrast to the central story line, which deals with a character who is hypochondriac and anxious. These problems are what society views today as “upper-class” issues. Another issue that comes up frequently for the narrator in this novel is the issue of guilt. This is embodied when we meet his young friend Roberto, and again when we he welcomes an Occupy protestor into his home. In both these situations, the narrator doesn’t do much to help either issue get resolved. Yes he is tutoring Roberto, and yes he houses the protestor, however he doesn’t join in on the protesting. He doesn’t give any money to Roberto or his family. We can assume, then, that since Ben Lerner is a successful, highly educated, white male, he is in this upper-class branch of society. This commentary on issues that his kind of people face—such as anxiety or guilt—sheds light on the differing levels of pain that society feels. While taken at face value, Lerner seems as if he’s deconstructing a story he’s just presented for the reader, and maybe pointing them at the conclusion he wants readers to take away, the reader must remember that it is not Lerner as the author who is narrating the novel. It is Lerner the character that has been created by the author.
The author made several choices in how to write this novel and tell this story. The style of the novel is written in poetic, grandiose style that is meant for a well-read audience. However, the story itself is about a sort of self-deprecating author who is first and foremost a poet, writing about how maybe his relationship to himself and his story is rooted in racism, classism, guilt, and how there is very little he is going to do about it. As noted, the narrator does not quite come to terms with any of the issues that are peripheral to his own narrative. The issues that the protestor, Roberto, even his best friend experience, don’t provoke any sort of change in the narrator. He just continues to worry about his potential fatal illness and if he is to father the child of his best friend. While at first read it appears that this is how Ben Lerner must feel about life, considering the narrator is, for all intents and purposes, Ben Lerner, the author is actually doing something extraordinary here. In pointing his readers to see all of the narrator’s flaws, the author has allowed us to really examine the kind of readers we are and the kind of people we are. Since this is written primarily for educated, seemingly upper-class readers, it seems redundant to then have a breakdown of the story by the narrator as we are being told it. But Lerner is saying something else here. He has detached himself from the novel, written outside of his own nonfiction and written something so close to his life but just a little different. He has taken nonfiction and made it fiction, so that he can give himself and his readers a chance to see, literally on the page what it is like to be living in this time. Lerner has created a world that is a carbon copy of the one we really live in today, but has chosen to pay attention to issues that aren’t normally addressed in contemporary literature. The idea of temporality, fiction, and art are explored in new ways in this novel, and Ben Lerner gives the readers a fresh, poetic take on what it means to be contemporary.