Written for the National Book Review
Ben Lerner’s semi fictional, semi non fictional novel, 10:04, straddles the edge of a radical portrayal of art and an excessive overuse of literary device. Lerner’s novel brings us in, teasing us to know more about his character, but the plot of the novel does not give importance to the events and development of the characters life. Instead, we are left with a quite dull and uneventful novel, containing frequent rude outbursts and stabs at the inappropriate social norms of society. Lerner calls out these inappropriate social norms but then attempts to distance himself from each one, only making it feel awkward and egotistical.
Lerner writes his novel to point out social normalities that he believes need to be called to attention. and validly so. The norms and situations he calls are not politically correct, putting down another race or ethnicity. Lerner’s character experiences each of these but then don’t forget, quick, Ben Learner the author pulls his character away from the situation as to stay impartial, unbiased. Showing us the problems relevant in our society, all the while saying, hey its not me, it happens but nope I didn’t do it.
Lerner’s character shares a moment following his first appointment at the sperm donation bank where, post appointment, he is sitting at a park bench reflecting on the local park nannies. Lerner’s character makes the comment “Watch[ing] the nannies, all of whom were black or brown, push around white kids in expensive strollers”(91). Lerner is making a stab at society, pointing out that rich white people are still hiring colored people to raise and care for their children. Similar to the help, these nannies are employed and payed for their services but they are also treated as the parents property to an extent. They become the parent’s nanny, answering to the parent. Bringing this controversial scene to the surface, Lerner quickly says away from it, showing the egocentrism of our society, by saying in the following line “I imagined trying to explain all of this to a future child, whom I pictured as Alex’s second cousin: ‘You’re mother and I loved each other, but not in the way that makes a baby, so we went to a place where they took part if me and then put it in part of her and that made you’. That sounded okay” (91). Lerner shows no attention to the racial and economical stab he takes, distinguishing nannies as colored, and becomes self-centered, thinking about explaining to his child why he is not a traditional family with Alex.
Lerner again calls out color prejudice while working at the co-op. A fellow volunteer coworker makes a comment about pulling her child out of school for reasons of race, but then covers it up by terming it in a way that sounds appropriate to agree with and rationalize. The coworker explains her motives saying, “It just isn’t the right learning environment for Lucas…A lot of the other kids were just out of control…Obviously it’s not the kids’ fault. A lot of them are coming from homes — well, they’re drinking soda and eating junk food all the time. Of course they can’t concentrate” (97). This racially charges statement is pretty clear to the eye and alarming. But Lerner, again, must take a step back, as to distance himself to show he is not part of the problem. He follows the coworkers statement by saying, “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: instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were- for reasons you sympathized with, reasons that weren’t really their fault- compromised by the food and drink they ingested; all those artificial dyes had darkened them on the inside” (97). Lerner again distances himself from the inappropriate social norm, but in doing so he comes off rude, explaining to the reader the statement with a sense of sass that almost feels belittling.
Lerner is back at it again. Calling out social expectations and assumptions of the races within the restaurant industry. When the character is out at a prestigious group dinner, he brings another racially heated social norm to the table by saying, “ Even here, where a meal for seven would be at least a thousand dollars, much of the work was done by a swift underclass of Spanish-speaking laborers…I tried to picture, as I looked around the restaurant, those towns in Mexico in which almost all of the able-bodied men were gone, employed now in New York’s service industry” (114). Lerner calls to attention the fact that most restaurants have Spanish cultured individuals as their waiters and bus boys. He makes the comment extra heated by starting it with “Even here, where a meal for seven would be at least a thousand dollars…”. He is pulling into to flame the idea of prestige of an environment is expected to ween out some cultures from employment. But like always, Lerner shies away from this fired up statement, by immediately reflecting on himself, sharing the praise he received from his fellow dinners.
The purpose of 10:04 is to call attention to disjunction in social statue and class and the reactions to each discrepancy. The novel does a good job of mentioning and bring up those heated topics, but the way Lerner jumps to distance himself from them comes across as rude and impolite. Lerner unfortunately portrays himself, an esteemed white elitist, as an egocentric individual who is aware of inhuman social normalities, but chooses to shy away from them not being involved in the problem but also not being involved in the solution. For these reasons the novel was very frustrating. Lerner’s character does not grow into a new mentality or being, he just lives on, continuing to frustrate the readers with his lack of respect and willingness to rise up for the oppressed.