The New York Times
Book Review by Kelli Finnegan
10:04 By Ben Lerner 240 pp. Picador. $9.99.
In a world increasingly obsessed with social injustice and the terrors of the future, it is not surprising that modern fiction so often incorporates these themes. Ben Lerner’s latest novel, however, manages to draw attention to a number of important issues in such a way that few authors have succeeded. “10:04” is a novel bookended by two of the most unnerving storms in U.S. history. Each storm, closely resembling Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, is an “unusually large cyclonic system” that requires unprecedented precautions to be taken by the citizens of New York City. This sense of impending doom is one that stretches through to some of the last pages of the novel. The narrator, who may or may not be Ben Lerner himself, mentors a young Hispanic student who has an acute fear for the inexorable possibility of an apocalypse driven by water scarcity, storms, or extinction. “’What if we run out of water to drink?’ he asked me. What if there are “water wars”?” the narrator’s mentee asks, logically afraid of the inevitable future disasters. Earlier, he says “when all the skyscrapers freeze they’re going to fall down like September eleventh,” refusing to allow anyone to forget the dangers of the future – something we probably shouldn’t be allowed to forget anyway.
Ben Lerner’s second novel – following his similarly self-conscious “Leaving the Atocha Station” – is “a book that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.” This self-aware statement, written by the semi-fictional narrator, speaks to the unique way that the novel hovers between fiction and reality. Lerner alludes on several occasions that the characters are stolen from his own life, given new names and faces and assigned old experiences. The protagonist ironically says, “I don’t want what we’re doing to just end up as notes for a novel,” which is exactly what it does become.
In using present-day New York City as the setting for most of the novel, Lerner manages to touch on such a large number of real political and social issues that there are almost too many to gauge. The issues are those that affect mostly minorities and the underprivileged, but we experience them through the watchful lens of a wealthy, upper-class author. This gives the political commentary weight because when you, as the reader, associate with something that the privileged, white narrator does, it underscores the relevance of the particular incident. At one point, the narrator says, “Almost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030,” in reference to his apocalypse-fixated mentee, “but I assured him he had no reason to worry.” This nonchalant and detached view of something so severe seems foreign, yet it is a familiar scene that we all see and practice on a daily basis. By using so many nonfictional elements, Lerner is able to take a step back and show us what is wrong with the way we act simply by showing us normal interactions, and that’s pretty important.
Earlier, in the faintest of plotlines, the narrator-author-protagonist has to “face the prospect of jacking off to porn in a medical office.” He donates sperm to help impregnate his best friend, and in doing so must watch one of “a huge number of movie titles organized alphabetically, but also by ethnicity.” Again, this acknowledgement of a social issue, this time the issue of racial tension, is done through the lens of someone who is largely unaffected by the aforesaid issue. He has “a few seconds of panicky deliberation” – because what white man would not panic at the prospect of being condemned for racial preference or disrespect? In the end, “not choosing seemed less objectionable somehow than having to express a positive preference.” In his attempt at not being racist, it is clear just how terrified the man is of being viewed in such a way. Of course, this desire to not be portrayed as racist shows just how rapidly he could transition into a place of racial predilection. Is this withdrawn political tiptoeing done to show examples of everyday circumstances that can resonate with most privileged people? It clearly mocks the way that many affluent people feel – panicked to realistically acknowledge the extreme issues of the world that they could attempt to relieve but have no true desire to do so. As for the main conflict, if I can stretch so far as to call it that, of impregnating his friend, the narrator selfishly and awkwardly scuffles through most of the related pages. He struggles with his own desires, attempting to discern whether or not he wants to be a father and whether or not he’d make a decent one. “You’re asking me to be a flickering presence,” he says to his friend, referring to their confusion over what his role as a father would look like, leaving readers ceaselessly unsure of whether he wishes to be a true father or just a biological one to his future child. Because Lerner attempts to pack so much into 240 pages, he struggles to maintain a cohesive plotline beyond the issue of impregnation. Rather, it reads almost as a collection of short stories consisting of political commentary, minor character conflicts, and meta-fiction. The second section of the book reads as a short story published by the narrator in the novel – one that was actually published by Lerner in a real newspaper – fiction and reality can’t really intertwine more strongly than that. Another parallel falls into place when you realize that “10:04” is about a young man writing his second novel – just as Ben Lerner is in writing “10:04”.
So, while “10:04” falls slightly short of the mark insofar as plot goes, it does successfully portray many political issues, inequalities, environmental issues, and a dozen other tribulations that are far too prevalent today. Even the anxious narrator’s self-absorbed and pretentious existence is pertinent to social injustices because, as he says, “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted.” The narrator works at a co-op with Noor, a fleeting character with a deep story, who says, “I had always thought of my skin as dark because my father’s skin was dark… and as I sat there looking at my hands… I could see my skin whitening a little.” Because the book lacks the consistency generally desired with a plotline, these small but impactful interactions are what keep the story moving. Why does Lerner choose to include these mental and emotional associations with race? The impact is as intended – it raises questions from a distance. The scenes also add an element of necessary direction to the novel, which it otherwise tends to lack as it skips nearly aimlessly from one minor event to another. Unfortunately, each of Lerner’s not-so-subtle points about racial tension is coupled with his own feelings towards it, preventing the reader from discerning his or her own interpretation of the issue.
By using the lens of upper-class privilege, Lerner is able to efficiently influence readers to examine the way that they approach situations, because upper-class readers have certainly experienced similar situations in their lives. “So much of the most important personal news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by smartphone,” he writes, calling attention to important phone calls and tweets of terror attacks and posts about deceased friends – bits of news that spread so quickly that you may even see them from a stranger before a friend or relative share the news. Even the cover of the novel, which ominously shows Manhattan sitting half in the dark due to the strength of Hurricane Sandy, also shows half of the city maintaining its power and light. Naturally, the narrator, like most successful authors and co-op workers, will always reside on the unharmed half of the city, where disaster fails to strike and tends to further separate the privileged from the not.
Lerner’s use of meta-fictional language and real-life political issues comes together for an artfully written novel that most are naming a must-read for the year. Despite the lack of suspenseful scenes and relatable characters, he manages to combine real art and photos with poetry and fictional events to provide a comment on societal norms and the importance of understanding the paradoxes in the way people present themselves. In an unprecedented way, he has constructed a series of stories that come together for a lengthy critique on the way that we live our lives and on the matter of privilege in America. While political commentaries have become increasingly common in the past few years of fictional developments, few have mastered the detached but impactful form that Lerner has in “10:04.” He said it best himself: “Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.”