10:04 by Ben Lerner review – a great writer, a great novel

The Guardian
By Alex Preston

Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was a surprise 2011 hit, its unprincipled, truth-bending narrator barely keeping his balance atop the fact/fiction divide. In that novel, as in his new one, Lerner aspired towards what WG Sebald described as “poetic truth” – “What I’m striving for is authenticity; none of it is real.” This line of Sebald’s, describing his own explorations of the generic hinterlands, might be the epigraph for 10:04, a work of fiction that never quite believes in its own fictitiousness, a novel that fails and fails again at being novelistic.

10:04 is bookended by two storms – Irene and Sandy (although they are never named). The equally unnamed narrator has just been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, which can lead to an aortic dissection, almost always fatal. He is trying, more or less unsuccessfully, to produce his second novel, after an excerpt in the New Yorker has prompted a rush of interest in his work. He’s neurotic, Woody Allen-ish, both confiding and mysterious, charming and dastardly. In many places, – and this is one of the problems of works in this mongrel genre, where the self is laid bare, and we expect either Knausgaardian earnestness or the comedy of Geoff Dyer – Lerner seems uncertain as to whether the narrator of 10:04 is merely a continuation of Leaving the Atocha Station’s amusing if odious protagonist, or something rather different, more authentically emotional.

Where 10:04 works, it is brilliant. There’s a passage where the narrator and two friends are walking through New York and the sounds and sights of the city intrude and overlap upon the protagonist’s consciousness. It builds up into a glorious tessellated sequence of ambulances, Rihanna singing Umbrella, neon billboards, text messages, the narrator’s conversation with his friends, his internal musings. It’s the best two pages of prose I’ve read in a long while. Even the novel’s missteps are interesting. Lerner made his name first as a poet and there are passages of densely poetic, Lawrentian prose whose aim seems to be to push the form to its limits. Some is unreadable, comically bad (surely intended), some rather beautiful.

“Like the princess in Sans soleil,” the narrator says towards the end of the book, “I’ll make a long list of things that quicken the heart.” He presents us with vignette after vignette, all of them very moving, all of them novels-in-waiting, essays that beg to be opened out into the roominess of the novel – an ex-girlfriend who faked cancer by pulling her hair out and starving herself; an activist for Arab rights who discovers that the Lebanese man who’d raised her isn’t her biological father; the narrator’s on-off girlfriend who sets up a gallery devoted to “totalled art” that had been written off by insurance companies; a tale his father tells him about missing his own mother’s funeral. By not writing one story, he gives us many, showing how rich and diverse a world the novel can hold.

10:04 seems to be a message from Lerner to the publishing industry so keen to hand him a “strong six-figure sum” on the back of his New Yorker story (which is in the book because the publishers insisted upon it and is actually one of the weaker sections). Over a lunch of salt-massaged baby octopus, his agent gives him advice on how to make his next novel more palatable than Leaving the Atocha Station: “Develop a clear, geometric plot,” she says, “describe faces, even those at the next table; make sure the protagonist undergoes a dramatic transformation.” He realises he can’t write this kind of book. “What if only his aorta undergoes change?” the narrator wonders to himself. Yes, he’s worrying about his cardiac illness, but also about his ability to move, to touch the hearts of his readers within a novel that disposes of so many of the form’s traditional satisfactions.

In constructing the collage of stories that makes up 10:04, Lerner is saying that life is too fragmented, too multifarious to be narrowed down to one single narrative, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be captured, in all its heartbreaking variety, in the pages of a novel. If, as JM Coetzee insists, great writers deform their medium in order “to say what has never been said before” Ben Lerner is a great writer and 10:04 a great novel.

Ben Lerner