For Ben Lerner and his novel 10:04 the transition from poetry to prose was seamless, comparable perhaps to 10:04’s narrator’s most profound influence, Walt Whitman. Ben Lerner walks the line of poetry and proses as delicately and flawlessly as 10:04 walks the line of fiction and non-fiction, leaving the reader puzzling which stories relate to Ben Lerner’s life and which have been fabricated.
Lerner is considered one of the most decorated poets of the twenty first century, having been granted the Fulbright Fellowship, the Hayden Carruth Award, the Howard Foundation Fellowship, and being a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angles Times Book Award for first fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. He has written three books of poetry, making the jump to a full-length fiction novel for the first time in 2011.
10:04, a work that the Financial Times has called “experimental autobiographical fiction,” chronicles the life of a celebrated author, Ben, who has recently been diagnosed with what could be a life threating heart disorder and been commissioned to write a new novel. It can be inferred that Ben is loosely (how loosely is indeterminable) based on Ben Lerner’s actual life. While the novel does not have a specific linear plot line, it does have many tangential plotlines that all intersect with the question: should Ben impregnate his best friend, Alex? This question finds its way into each tangent that Lerner provides. Roberto, the undocumented child that the narrator tutors, demonstrates the narrator’s anxieties about rearing a child. Noor, the young women who has just lost her Muslim identity when finding out her real father is not the man she thought he was, further validates the narrator’s fears about his involvement in his child’s life. The protester, who the narrator shares his home with for a few hours, establishes a desire within the narrator to care for another person. Each of these plot (plot being used loosely) lines demonstrates the complexity of this question for the narrator. Ultimately, the novel tracks the progress of creation – the creation of a novel and of a child.
The prospect of becoming a father, and bringing a child into a world he believes is “ending,” creates a character who appears more mature, but no less dramatic or paternalistic than the protagonist of Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. This complex and multifaceted issue is fleshed out in a hypothetical conversation between the narrator and his future child: “ ‘Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending?’ ‘Because the world always ending for each of us and if one begins to withdraw from the possibilities of experience, then no one would take any of the risks involved with love.’” This fear of reproducing in the midst of the two storms that book-end the novel, and amongst the racial and political unrest presented is counterbalanced by the narrator’s own self-interest and what appears to be a “sincere” love for his best friend and for their yet to be conceived child.
“Sincerity,” and its relationship to irony is a fundamental consideration of this novel. The narrator attempts to morph from “irony to sincerity” which provides a stark contrast to Lerner’s protagonist from Leaving the Atocha Station. This movement away from cold irony and disparagement and towards the “New Sincerity” trails the ideas presented by David Foster Wallace. Wallace suggested that authors functioning under the “New Sincerity” must be concerned with banality when being compared to the work of ironist, but 10:04 conquers both worlds by providing a sincere outlook without falling victim to the boredom trap often associated with a lack of irony.
Where the novel lacks in plot, it flirts with ideas of race and class. The narrator, being a white, upper-class male who recently received a “six figure advance” for the novel he is writing, represents to some degree the readership of this novel; appealing to those who see themselves as aware and detached from the many social issues present in the contemporary moment being consider in 10:04. While this level of detachment has been criticized as presenting the issues, but not dealing with them, it can be inferred that this is precisely the social issue at the core of the novel. Those who have the wealth and power to make social change elect to view social issues in a detached and ironic manner, as the narrator does constantly with his in depth analysis of social issues. This systematic ruse that is common amongst the upper class is what Lerner is attempting to call attention to through the character of Ben, and through Ben’s intensive and aloof interpretations of other’s behavior.
While social issues find themselves rooted deeply in this novel, art is another leitmotif addressed. Lerner, and in turn his protagonist, Ben, are faced with the challenge of creating a piece of engaging fiction that will attract a commercial readership, while still maintaining the prestige of being art. The narrator is the first to achieve success at this difficult feat through his New York Times publication, “The Golden Vanity.” Not only does this piece relate to the overarching concern with the creation of commercial friendly art, but it also adds the delicate fiction/nonfiction balance, being that Ben Lerner actually wrote “The Golden Vanity” and had it published in the New York Times before the inception of this novel. Lerner clearly achieves his goal of creating commercialized art through the success of 10:04. Devoured by the public, while still maintaining a scholarly tone and artistic mission, 10:04 can easily be considered one of the most artistic and profound novels of contemporary literature.
While being a novel very much about the present, the future is often referenced and seems to be the crux of the artistic drive. The title alone, 10:04, is an explicit reference to Back to the Future, being the time on the clock when Marty is finally able to return to the present. This reference and countless others in the novel, including The Clock, and the multitude of images included, have the power to conjure up phantasmagorias of the future or multiple futures and the effects of time on the present. Time and its impending influence on the characters in 10:04 has the authority to make “the world rearrange itself” around the many interconnected characters. The present obliterates the past and makes room for a new future repeatedly in this novel and within the “The Golden Vanity.” This emphasis on the future is coupled with the mantra “Everything will be as it is now – just a little different” insinuating about the future and the present while demonstrating the novel’s preoccupation with perspective.
While these heavy political and racial undertones and societal critiques may make the novel seem like an exhausting read, Lerner incorporates humor into his intellectual seriousness and provides a satirical commentary of the life of a “published author.” The almost lyrical writing style when speaking about mundane topics (phrases like “Prospect Park as light died in the lindens”) adds to lightness of the novel. This novel appeals to a commercial audience, while still having the prestige of being a scholarly and intellectual work of art.
At its core, 10:04 is a metafiction novel about writing a novel. And to complicate this further, it is about writing the very novel that the reader possesses. The meta-elements presented paired with the social issues considered created a novel that cannot be breezed through. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that each word, each character, and each tangential plot line is designed to call attention to the systematic detachment of upper class white Americans from the social issues ravening the population. This novel will keep you engaged while challenging your worldviews, making it a true work of art.