Written for the Los Angeles Review of Books
It exists in everyone’s lives an anxiety about the world to come, the world coming to an end, and the aftermath of our cessation, the termination of a life that one knows must always come to an end. So how then, do we continue to live a life we know will one day cease to exist? How do we accept the fact that we are merely a temporary habitant on this vast planet? And how could we possibly agree to bringing more life into an already withering and decaying world that will only continue to spiral downward?
Ben Lerner raises these important questions, and more, in his thought-provoking novel 10:04. Like his book of poems The Lichtenberg Figures, Ben incorporates autobiography, poetry, criticism, and comedy into a novel of fiction that also addresses the topic of mortality, politics, and class inequality. Although he provides no answers, or attempts to answer these issues which we currently face today, his addressing the issues forces us as readers to acknowledge our own privilege (or the lack thereof), our own stance on current matters, and our own mortality in whatever way it affects us individually.
In 10:04, the narrator, who remains unnamed, must undertake and come to terms with his own mortality after learning he has a potentially fatal medical condition: an aneurysmal dilation of the aortic root in his heart that risks the possibility of tearing. Along with his own life, the narrator is asked to help his best friend Alex in bringing another life into the world, a task which proves somewhat difficult, but possible nonetheless. Interwoven within this major plot of the novel are characters and events that remind him of his privilege in regards to the job he has, the area in which he lives, and the issues he faces on a daily basis.
Lerner is a poet first and foremost, and that is made more than clear to readers as the story of the novel progresses. It proves to be a task to understand and follow his train of thought, and some instances arise where Lerner makes mention of a topic that proves to have potential and engages the reader to want to know more, only to ultimately be let down as he quickly sidetracks the reader to transition into a new topic (one that may be seen to have no apparent relevance to the rest of the story as it’s being told). Nonetheless, Lerner eventually makes it a point to readers that the plot of his story is in no way linear or chronological. For example, as the story begins readers are introduced to the narrator and his agent eating octopus in Chelsea and near the end of the 240-page novel, one is left reading about the very same thing.
His vocabulary is advanced and academic, not meant for the average teenager but that is exactly the point. Although this novel poses as a challenge for a young adult looking for a good read (in which case, this novel, however challenging it may be, proves to still be a very satisfying read indeed), such a challenge proves fruitless to a typical audience of Lerner’s: middle-aged, upper-class colleagues of his own who live and breathe every sense of the privilege that leaks all over this novel. Granted, one must take into consideration that Lerner himself is a MacArthur Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow, amongst various other titles, thus it would be understandable why a distinguished author such as himself may assume that his readers are of a certain intellectual degree capable of understanding and appreciating the art he has so carefully written.
In regards to his audience, Lerner addresses political, racial, and economic differences to readers who are probably white, well-read, and well off, just as Lerner is himself. His stance remains unclear, subtly acknowledging his privilege, yet saying nothing about it nor offering any suggestion for how to go about our world differences in order to bring us together. It is clear that there is some type of commentary or critique within the novel, but it is difficult for one to know for sure, as the narrator refuses to explicitly tell his audience of his opinion. For example, while working at a co-op the narrator overhears a lady talking about her son’s transfer from public to private schooling. To this he comments:
It was the kind of exchange, although exchange isn’t really the word, with which I’d grown familiar, a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety… allowed you to redescribe caring for your own genetic material – feeding Lucas the latest in coagulated soy juice – as altruism. But from those who out of ignorance or desperation have allowed their children’s digestive tracts to know deep-fried, mechanically processed chicken, those who happen to be, in Brooklyn, disproportionately black and Latino, Lucas must be protected at whatever cost.”
Lerner’s narrator equips an ironic distancing in this novel in that his position on social and class status is somewhat anxious and unclear. He distances himself from the other privileged characters within the novel in order to show that he himself is different from the other white, upper class people of Brooklyn, yet readers can still sense that he is nonetheless a member of this upper class, revealing the irony of his commentary within the novel.
The narrator includes in his novel four characters who are diverse in their backgrounds and add substance and flavor to the basic plot of the novel: the protestor, Roberto, Noor, and Alex. Of the four, Roberto and Noor possess two of the most gripping and emotional stories that will keep you wanting and asking for more. Noor, a Lebanese-Jewish graduate student who learns that she was raised by a man who she believed to be her father and now faces an identity crisis, and Roberto, an undocumented eight-year-old Mexican immigrant who fears Joseph Kony and superstorms, both possess fears and worries more relevant to the lives of normal individuals than the narrator’s own troubles. As intriguing and compelling as these characters’ stories are, they also reveal the narrator’s almost hypocritical stance on social differences in that he is using these stories (which may be real due to the autobiographic structure of the novel, though we will never know for sure because it is still a work of fiction) for his own monetary gain. He reveals in the middle of the novel that he has been trusted with people’s stories and only on one occasion does he fulfill Alex’s wish that he keep her story out of any work he writes, no matter how disguised (though, again, we do not know for sure that he respected her request). In addition, his relationship with Roberto exists merely as a project of sorts, a charity case in which the narrator gives back to the poor through Roberto by providing him the opportunity to write his own book at the narrator’s expense. Roberto also acts as a voice of reason in the novel, especially in regards to the novel’s concerns with mortality, temporality, and extinction. It would seem absurd for an eight-year-old to be so perturbed by incoming hurricanes when the narrator himself is barely shaken at the idea, yet such is the case.
The novel itself begins with an epigraph taken from an essay written by Giorgio Agamben, a well-known Italian philosopher. It ends with the line “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different” which introduces readers to a future that remains unknown but will lack significant contrast. Thus this epigraph gives the idea of a shifting perspective to the same experience in life. The “world to come” itself could be considered the afterlife, post-apocalyptic, or an alternate reality depending on the perspective with which one approaches it. The Clock in Lerner’s novel is described as containing minutes from different worlds which convey a sense of having different perceptions of the same time. 10:04, as the novel is titled, was the time that “lightning [would] strike the courthouse clock tower in Back to the Future, allowing Marty to return to 1985,” a scene from a movie the narrator enjoys and has watched on multiple occasions. Lerner’s novel also works to erase the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, his own form of “metaxis” as it relates to metamodernism. Featuring his own short story, which appeared in The New Yorker, Lerner transitions from the fiction within his novel to the work of fiction published in our real world, both of which contain bouts of nonfiction as well. Readers are taught that the possibilities are truly endless in fiction, which is what gives it its utopian glimmer.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 encompasses within it several key themes which promise to keep readers engaged and thinking about life (and death) in ways they may have never thought before. Despite his own hesitations, he forces his readers to acknowledge their own privilege and puts his narrator to the forefront as an example. Through the diverse stories and characters included in the novel, readers are taken in and out of fiction and nonfiction repeatedly and introduced to a world new to contemporary literature that grapples with issues repressed yet inevitable.