Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 begins with perhaps one of the most interesting opening lines I’ve read: The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.
And thus sets the stage for 10:04, a novel and kind of meta-novel that ranges from the narrator’s fear of his own death due to a symptom-less heart condition, the possibility of becoming a father (or just sperm donor) with his best friend who may soon age out of having a baby, the novelty of consumerism juxtaposed with Brooklynite fervor for organic mangoes and co-op purchased dinners, an “institution” of broken, worthless art, and the confusion of identity of self.
At the heart of the story we have our narrator, a 30-something Brooklyn male whose achieved incredible literary success over a short story published in The New Yorker. (Pause for a collective eye roll – read on, I promise it’s not what you think.) What makes the story not a total “white male novel” is that Lerner’s narrator does not dictate the stories around him. In fact, he lives through his interactions with others. His best friend’s decision to have a child with him leaves him facing the possibility of an uncertain fatherhood. The woman he occasionally sleeps with is indifferent to him. The child he tutors tells him more about his obsessively self-aware ineptitude to serve as a role model than it does about the boy. The doctor who treats him for his symptom-less condition creates the story of his mortality. In 10:04, stories happen to the narrator while he remains an involved yet quiet observer.
Lerner’s writing does what I like to think of as “fill the negative space.” He is self-aware to the extreme, noticing cultural universalities such as the way we speak to each other in the wake of a common incident: Because every conversation you overheard in line or on the street or train began to share a theme, it was soon one common conversation you could join, removing the conventional partitions from social space; riding the N train to Whole Foods in Union Square, I found myself swapping surge level predictions with a Hasidic Jew and a West Indian nurse in purple scrubs. Or the subtleties of human behavior, “So why did you get married if you don’t want kids?” We emerged onto the Manhattan Bridge; almost everyone checked e-mails, texts “You left without saying goodbye,” Alex’s said. “Shine bright like a diamond,” Rihanna sang through the earbuds of the girl beside me, whose fingernails were painted with stars. Or, the experience of being out of your body (in this case through mind-altering substances): I was laughing too–in fact I saw myself from the outside, in the third person, in a separate window, laughing in slow motion–but then, having done such a stimulant, why was I outside of myself; why was time slowing? Before I knew it, I was trying to hold on to that question, felt it was the last link between me and my body, but soon the question didn’t belong to me, was just another thing there in the courtyard from which my consciousness was turning away.
Lerner’s fascination with our own fictions — the stories we create from pieces of memory, the stories we hear and implant ourselves into, the stories we tell about ourselves and about the people around us — is what makes the novel work. In one scene, a side character tells the story of growing up believing herself to be Arab-American and identifying with that culture in a way that it shaped her entire belief system and identity, only to learn as an adult that the man who raised her was not her biological father. She was not, in fact, Arab-American. Lerner’s exploration of how time morphs around us when the stories we’ve told to ourselves become nothing more than fiction is executed with heart rendering poignancy. In another example, Lerner discusses the Challenger explosion, noting how many people who lived through it believe to have witnessed it live, when in fact, very few people did see it live, and many more saw it later on their televisions. Yet still, many, many people have convinced themselves of the former, despite the incredibility of such a thing.
Lerner’s 10:04 is a brilliant take on contemporary American culture. By exploring our collective preoccupation with time, the debilitating nature of capitalism, questions surrounding an ever changing environmental and political landscape, and the search for the truth in our own personal fictions, he has created an intelligent, witty, sharply focused portrait that leaves no part of ourselves un-examined.