I read the first 70 pages of 10:04 sceptically. I had enjoyed Ben Lerner’s debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, in part because it did not outstay its welcome – it’s an autobiographical novel about a poet (like Lerner) who wins a scholarship to Madrid (as Lerner did) where he attempts to medicate himself into artistic reverie.
But does 10:04, which is about a writer (called Ben) whose first novel is a succès d’estime (as Atocha was) and who has just received a large advance for a second (which turns out to be the one we’re reading), risk dragging the conceit through the dust long after it had expired? No need to worry, 10:04 is an even better book, still introspective but with less of the rancid brio of youth, more contemplative and tender. It is a slender volume that worries about the value of small acts of generosity in the face of apocalyptic climate change and coercive economic relations that implicate us all.
For a series of scenes from Brooklyn life, 10:04 is remarkably eventful: Ben learns he has a potentially fatal heart condition; he attempts to inseminate his best friend, Alex, who sees her opportunity to have a child running out; a student has a psychotic episode in his office; two hurricanes, bookending the novel, sweep through New York. There are a number of bravura set pieces, notably an account of the role a Ronald Reagan speech played in Ben’s literary awakening; and a comical trip to the Natural History Museum.
Despite its superficial ordinariness, 10:04 covertly transforms itself into science fiction. The title refers to the time, frozen by lightning, on the clock tower in Back to the Future and, besides excursions into cardiology, meteorology and palaeontology, Lerner tends to write about sex, drug-taking and pigeons in a scientific register.
10:04’s epigraph is a Hasidic saying that wryly states that in the World to Come “everything will be as it is now, just a little different”, but the novel explores how such alternative realities can flicker into existence in this world: in, for example, the story of a Lebanese-American woman who discovers she has no Arab heritage after her supposed father’s death.
Out of the ephemera of everyday life, Lerner has created a work of great artifice, knitted together by dozens of images. To take one example, the octopus Ben eats to celebrate his book deal is reprised in tentacular weather systems and the sonogram of the pregnant Alex. This cluster serves as a figure for Lerner’s fictions: life appears to spiral without purpose, but connections are constantly arranged. It’s only the first week of January but I doubt I’ll read a finer novel this year.