“Everything will be as it is now, just a little different” is a quote that appears before the beginning of 10:04 by Ben Lerner and becomes a mantra throughout the novel. This sentence, which appears multiple times, is not Ben Lerner’s. It was written in a book by Agamben, who was quoting Walter Benjamin, who was quoting his editor and Lerner attributes the idea to an old Hassidim story. Although not his own concept, Lerner ultimately weaves this idea throughout the novel relating it to reality and fiction in a way that leaves the reader second-guessing every sentence they read.
If you enjoy a straightforward story with a strong plot and likable, diverse characters, then this novel is not for you. Although he can be humorous at times, the unnamed narrator, who shares many similarities with Ben Lerner, is not someone you would want to be best friends with. Lerner best describes the narrator when the narrator of 10:04 describes “the distinguished male author” at a dinner where he was giving a speech. As Lerner says, this is a man “who had won international literary prizes…[and] was not going to stop talking at any point in the meal”. In fact 10:04 can be seen as a 200-page example of the distinguished male author’s “logorrhea”. Hidden behind a scholarly and cultivated vocabulary is a seemingly trivial main plot that only an upper-class, liberal, white man in a developed country would face: should he be a sperm donor so his friend Alex can conceive a baby via intrauterine insemination (IUI). While this is the main plot, the narrator also grapples with and dwells on a medical issue, a possible aortic dissection (which is really a non issue that he makes too big a deal out of) mentoring a young child, Roberto, and writing his book. However, if you can get past the at times infuriating main character and the seemingly lack of plot, the novel does have merit in the ideas that drive the novel.
Instead of being a plot-focused novel, Lerner basically wrote a book about writing. 10:04 is the epitome of a meta fictional novel, in which the narrator of the novel 10:04 is currently writing the novel 10:04. One entire section of the book contains the short story that 10:04 is essentially a continuation of. Part two contains the short story “The Golden Vanity” by Ben Lerner, which appeared in the New Yorker. The main plot of the short story is the plot of 10:04, just a little different. Instead of having Marfan Syndrome, the untitled main character referred to as “the Author” now has a brain tumor that may or may not be benign. Alex becomes Liza, his girlfriend Elena becomes Hannah, instead of being written in the first person, it was written in the third, and so on. However everything that appears in “The Golden Vanity”, which was written before and is the inspiration for 10:04, is more or less the exact same as part one of 10:04. This is one of the more successful parts of the novel because it is a display of how he can change details, yet ultimately changes nothing.
While in Marfa, Texas to work on his novel, which he received a six figure advance for, the narrator discovers that what he is actually interested in is the line between fiction and non-fiction and changes the novel from his original plan to that of 10:04. After arriving, the narrator finds that he cannot write and procrastinates by studying Whitman (yet another self-centered, white, male poet) for the upcoming class he is teaching the next semester and writing poetry. It is while writing poetry in Marfa, that he realizes why he prefers poetry:
The poem, like most of my poems, and like the story I’d promised to expand, conflated fact and fiction, and it occurred to me…that part of what I love about poetry was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain. How the correspondence between text and world was less important than the intensities of the poem itself”
One goal of writing 10:04 is to “conflate fact and fiction” and Lerner artfully realizes it while displaying a mastery of the English language, however it only goes that far. While the ideas are good, the novel lacks because it’s filled with characters that the reader does not care about and therefore has no interest in what actually happens in the novel.
If Lerner wanted the effect of merging fact and fiction to be that the reader is driven insane second guessing every word written in the novel, then he certainly achieved it, because that is one of the effects, whether it is intended or no. Since the narrator doesn’t have a nine to five job, he is able to work at a Food Co-Op, which he always complains about, but, on-par with his inaction throughout the novel, will not quit. There he talks to a young woman named Noor, one of the few likable characters in the story despite her brief appearance in it. She proceeds to hesitantly tell him about her father. Her father was from Lebanon and she was always very close to him and identified with his Middle Eastern Identity. She joined BU Arab Students and studied Middle Eastern Politics. After her father dies though, she finds out that he was not her biological father and as a result feels like her identity is beginning to fade. Throughout the story, Lerner emphasizes that it is not exactly as she said it. Lerner, initially a poet, physically plays with the appearance of the text in the novel to contribute to this confusion. At the beginning of the story, Lerner stops using quotation marks, but continues to use conventional language when quoting something such as writing Noor said. The reader then begins to question if this is a real story, a fictional story, or some combination of the two?
By possibly taking others stories, Lerner is bringing the issue of morals into writing. We don’t really know if these stories are fictional or non-fictional. While reading 10:04, you can’t help but identify the narrator as Lerner, and assume that this is a semi-autobiographical novel about his life. After all, in the story, the narrator writes the short story that Lerner writes and it includes poetry that he wrote as well. Due to this, you want to assume that the stories in the novel are true, but if they were true then wouldn’t this bring up another issue of morals. Noor hesitantly tells the narrator her story and doesn’t want other people to overhear, which if she were a real person would indicate that she most likely wouldn’t want her story published in a novel for others to read even if her name is changed. Alex later tells the narrator not to include a story about her mother no matter how he tries to change the names. You could assume that even writing this plea for privacy is a violation of privacy if the real Alex ever did ask Lerner of that. We now know that there is a story about Alex’s mother that she doesn’t want others to hear, however, we never learn if this story is included in the novel or not. We can hypothesize that the story about the narrators dad attending his mother’s funeral is actually the story of Alex’s mother, however we will never know if it is or not, further confusing fact and fiction.
One of the problems with the novel can be exemplified by the fact that the issue with morals is only a possible issue in the novel. Lerner is evasive when it comes to this concern as well as many of the other socio-economic and environmental issues. He constantly presents something that may be a problem, but then proceeds to do absolutely nothing about it. Lerner doesn’t even explicitly identify the morals of taking others stories as an issue and the narrator certainly does not learn or develop by the end of the novel. This problem draws away from the more unique and positive aspects of the novel, such as the blurring of fiction and non-fiction. This is an interesting concept. It causes you to question every word in the novel and ask did this really happen? Through this Lerner is trying to say in that it may or may not of happened, but it happens in the novel, therefore it doesn’t really matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction. However, the reader can’t focus on this thought-provoking idea because they’re too busy concentrating on the glaring problems with and their dislike of the main character.