For The New York Times Book Review
Ben Lerner is an esteemed poet, essayist, critic and – some say – novelist. His novels Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 received endless praise for their quasi-autobiographical style and exploration of race and class relations from the perspective of a well-to-do academic. Lerner has been commended for disregarding literary conventions in favor of an experimental approach to fiction, no doubt due, in part, to his poetry background.
Lerner suffers from what John Gardner referred to as “verbal sensitivity,” or the prioritization of language itself rather than its purpose. It is characteristic of poets to place immense importance on the specificity of language. When poets try their hand at writing fiction, their lofty and overly precise language often results in a choppy narrative, with plot slipping through the cracks and readers struggling to piece together the story. Consequently, many acclaimed poets are unsuccessful novelists, and vice versa. In On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner emphasizes that “normal people, people who haven’t been misled by a faulty college education, do not read novels for words alone. They open a novel with the expectation of finding a story.” Lerner’s tendency to showcase language instead of using it as a vehicle for plot development results in a novel with a surplus of impressive vocabulary but very little plot progression.
Gardner compares good novels to dreams, with a narrative so powerful that readers forget they are reading a story rather than living it. He warns that “the writer who cares more about words than about a story (characters, action, setting, atmosphere) is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much; in his poetic drunkenness, he can’t tell the cart–and its cargo–from the horse.” Lerner’s superfluous language has a tendency to pull readers back into the here and now rather than holding them in the present of the novel, his often clunky word choice inhibiting the smooth flow one desires in a novel.
One must also begin to consider the ramifications of prioritizing experimental structure and the blurring of reality and fiction over the quality and clarity of the narrative, one of which being the destruction of this “dream” novelists hope to create. The novel includes a section where Noor, a woman who works at a co-op with the unnamed narrator, tells the story of how she discovered her Lebanese father was not her biological father, leading to the crumbling of her sense of identity built around the connection to her Lebanese roots and the Islamic faith. Segments of Noor’s story are contained by quotation marks, indicating that the words are supposedly hers, while others are not. Lerner utilizes a similar structure when telling the story of the death of the narrator’s grandmother from the father’s perspective. The purpose of Lerner’s experimentation with punctuation is unclear, with theories ranging from adopting the stories as his own, to the stories actually being his yet disguised as those of others, to merely differentiating between an exact retelling and paraphrasing of the stories.
As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate between reality and fiction. The second part of the novel consists entirely of Lerner’s story The Golden Vanity, which was published in The New Yorker. The piece, narrated in the third person, follows “the author” as he goes to the dentist to have his wisdom teeth removed and discovers that he has a supposedly benign mass in his cavernous sinus that may or may not kill him. The plot of this story within a story bears remarkable resemblance to the narrator’s life and medical situation, and is written by the narrator himself, which leaves the reader wondering if Lerner and the narrator are one and the same.
Later in the story, Lerner begins to refer to the narrator as the author. After the narrator stumbles home after a long drug- and alcohol-fueled escapade, Lerner describes how “the author found himself, his body still a little heavy with the traces of a veterinary dissociative tranquilizer, driving nine miles out on Route 67.” There is no transition or differentiation between the narrator of 10:04 and the main character in The Golden Vanity, which then begs the question of how much or how little of 10:04 is in fact a retelling of Lerner’s life and the process he went through while creating both The Golden Vanity as well as 10:04 itself. Lerner also inserts excerpts of a speech he gave at Columbia into the narrative, the only difference being that the speech is given by the narrator who may or may not be Lerner himself. Gardner would once again criticize this technique for pulling the reader out of the story.
This problem resurfaces in the portions of the novel in which the narrator, or perhaps Lerner, points out the problem of racial and class categorization. During a conversation with another woman at the co-op who has decided to pull her child out of public school, Lerner halts the progression of the narrative to take a step back and explain how people now have “a new bio-political vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety: instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were…compromised by the food and drink they ingested.” Instead of presenting the reader with a situation through the narrative, then letting him decide the level of importance and whether to reader further into it on his own, Lerner decides for the reader what should be focused on in the novel. The shift to the second person style of narration also changes the relationship between reader and narrator. Readers are no longer watching a story unfold through the narrator’s eyes but are receiving a lecture on the nuances of racism and classism in society.
Despite this occasional analysis of societal shifts, the narrator spends much of the novel in his own head, taking the reader through conversations and situations that never really happen. After deciding to provide Alex with his sperm for her IUI treatments to help her conceive a child, the narrator imagines a future conversation with his potential daughter. He explains how he “watched a video of young women whose families hailed from the worlds most populous continent get sodomized for money and emptied his sperm into a cup he paid a bunch of people to wash and shoot into your mom through a tube.” The continual presentation of potential futures and imaginary interactions between characters takes the blurring of reality and fiction even further. Lerner is no longer merely blurring the line between the world of the novel and the real world but also the world of the novel and the world inside the narrators own head within the world of the novel.
The novel’s saving grace, perhaps, is the connection to Back to the Future and the Challenger disaster. The title is pulled from the scene in the movie when the clock tower is struck by lightning at 10:04, allowing Marty to return to 1984. This pop culture reference is far more accessible and engaging than Lerner’s frequent allusions to the works of academics, such as Walter Benjamin and Georgio Agamben, often read and referred to only by other academics. Yes, most Americans have at least heard of Walt Whitman, but the overwhelming majority is neither aware of his Brooklyn background nor familiar enough with his work to fully understand the relevance of Lerner’s inclusion of him the story. Frequently referring back to the Challenger pulls in and forms a bridge between Lerner and an entire generation that held its breath as the disaster unfolded on television and tuned in once more to listen to Reagan’s speech. For some readers, these references may even evoke a twisted sense of nostalgia, transporting them back to a simpler and, despite the untimely demise of the Challenger crew and the disturbing visuals broadcasted to the world, happier time. This helps to reestablish the “dream” that Gardner considered vital to the success of a novel, taking readers to another present on the page.
Though 10:04 is a work of fiction, it reads more like poetry, which is unsurprising since Lerner is, first and foremost, a poet. Lerner provides an explanation for the structure of his book, with the narrator revealing that “what I loved about poetry was the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain, how the correspondence between text and the world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself.” With this, Lerner justifies his departure from the path of pure narrative and unconventional structuring of his work. With this intention in mind, disregarding personal standards of fiction, 10:04 is no less than a masterpiece.