10:04 by Ben Lerner, book review: Accomplished novel is as maddening as it is moving

The Independent
By Jonathan Gibbs

I became so infuriated with Ben Lerner's debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, that on finishing it I decided to avoid male writers completely, and spent four months reading women.

It wasn't that his novel wasn't brilliantly written, which it was, especially in its passages on art, but rather that it elevated its dissection of male fecklessness to a kind of rapturous adulation, as if there was something heroic in harping on about what an arsehole you were.

The last decade had seen the departure of the grand old men of literature – Bellow, Updike, Roth – but here, it seemed to me, was a new kind of male writer, who was set on holding on to the limelight with a virtuoso confession of their own inadequacies. Knausgaard, David Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer all do or did this to a degree, but Lerner seemed a particularly specious case – though naturally he is alive to the accusation. It's there in his second novel, 10:04, which he, or his narrator, describes as "another novel about fraudulence, no matter the bruised idealism at its core".

The book, less infuriating than Atocha, is nevertheless equally irradiated with this ironised self-awareness, where acknowledgement of failure is a species of success, as when we read: "The fact is that realising my selfishness just led to more selfishness." What's so tricksy about this kind of writing is that every critical position against it has already been adopted. Whatever you want to accuse it of, it agrees with you.

Like the earlier book, 10:04 presents itself as a novel "on the very edge of fiction", though the degree to which the plot is actually autobiographical is less important than the sense of verve and vulnerability aroused by the statement that it is.

Certainly Lerner's narrator seems to be the author of Lerner's first novel, and is now in receipt of a "'strong six-figure' advance" (note the ironical quotes) for a follow-up, though this news is tempered by a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, which could lead to the rupture of a major artery, and death, at any moment.

The narrator faces both possible futures with equanimity, however, continuing his work as a volunteer tutor for an eight-year-old boy with attention difficulties, and his plan to donate sperm for his friend Alex; these two go to parties and galleries, and live through two of the big hurricanes to hit New York.

None of this is recounted for dramatic purposes, however, but rather thematic. "Part of what I loved about poetry," Lerner writes, "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."

And this book, in its management of its own intensities, in its integration of radically different cultural moments and artefacts (the Challenger disaster, Walt Whitman, Christian Marclay's film collage The Clock, Back to the Future), is wonderful indeed.

There is still the achingly precocious language to overcome: when our man accidentally feeds half a Viagra pill to a pigeon, we get, "What is the effect of sildenafil citrate on stout-bodied passerines?" while "a mild lacrimal event" stands for, you know, a little bit of a cry. For all this, 10:04 is an accomplished work, and a mature one, and will move as many as it maddens.

Ben Lerner