Impossible Mirrors

The New York Times
By Hari Kunzru

Early in “10:04,” Ben Lerner’s frequently brilliant second novel, the central character — a refraction or avatar of this ­Brooklyn-based author — describes visiting the Metropolitan Museum with a female friend: “We often visited weekday afternoons, since Alex was unemployed, and I, a writer.” Together they look at a melodramatic 19th-century genre painting of Joan of Arc, which the narrator claims is one of his favorite pictures. Lerner uses the strikingly unlovely word “coconstructed” to describe the shared nature of their experience: “We would work out our views as we coconstructed the literal view before us.” A few paragraphs on, he and an 8-year-old boy are seen “coconstructing a shoe-box diorama.” Later he can be found letting an Occupy protester shower in his apartment, wondering if it’s possible to “coconstruct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit.”

The word’s very clunkiness seems to indicate sincerity, but in each case the narrator’s apparently committed attempt to think through a moment of community — sharing an experience of art, playing with a child, giving hospitality to a stranger — is thrown into question by a detectable note of archness. At the Met he connects the painting to “Back to the Future,” a “crucial movie of my youth.” He and the 8-year-old plan “to self-publish” a book about dinosaurs. As he cooks quinoa (“an Andean chenopod”) for the unnamed Occupy protester, he muses on the left-­theoretical notion of “briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic — your bathroom — into the commons.” Does this ironic tone (which often feels like a reflex, a tic) preclude sincerity? Is all this talk of community no more than an artful confection, the purest kind of cynicism? The question is impossible to resolve, so each of these episodes — and indeed the book as a whole — takes on a sort of hermetic undecidability.

Though “10:04” is preoccupied by the narrator’s relationship to others, particularly the possibility of “coconstructing” a child with Alex, his real compulsion is himself. Like Lerner’s previous novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” this is a book about self-consciousness. In a passage in which “the author” has fallen into the third person, Lerner summarizes: “His narrator was characterized above all by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation.” In “Leaving the Atocha Station,” this anxiety was comically excessive, and Lerner’s alter ego seemed to stand in a long line of literary schlemiels, the genealogy of Philip Roth and Gary Shteyngart. “10:04” is an attempt to break out of this tradition of well-armored self-deprecation into — what, exactly? This is no kamikaze attempt at truthfulness or self-disclosure in the vein of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Lerner’s position is always hedged. Yet another tentative stab at community, looking for U.F.O.’s with a fellow artist on a residency, detours into private brooding. He resolves to scrap the book he’s working on, in favor of “the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction but a flickering between them.” The gloss has a whiff of control-freakery, of wishing to guide or pre-empt the reader’s response to the text.

For a writer-narrator who aspires to being a Whitmanesque poet of collectivity, there’s a melancholy quality to this inability to focus on anyone but himself, and to his neurotic need to govern how he and his work are perceived. “10:04” feels like a significant book because it is so thoroughly inhabited by this yearning, and so abjectly conscious of the ways in which it falls short. The tension between irony and sincerity, between critical distance and full engagement, defines much contemporary culture and spills out into important political and ethical debates. Experiencing a moment of sublimity, looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park (“Whitman’s side of the river”), the narrator sees the “liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the F.D.R. Drive” and the illuminated windows of the buildings as “the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts . . . were nevertheless addressed.” In Ler­ner’s diagnosis, this possible “you,” the you of realized community, has been assaulted by the fierce ideological individualism of neoliberalism. His narrative ends in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as New Yorkers find themselves separated into those with power and those without, and the lights of the Goldman Sachs building blaze out over the darkened street grid of downtown, an image he has chosen for the cover of the book.

Formally “10:04” belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer. Its nearest relative is the work of Teju Cole, with whom Lerner shares an interest in art and the social fabric of cities. More confessional than Cole, it also shares much with Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick” and Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be,” and it is occasionally reminiscent of the work of Geoff Dyer, who will turn an essay on D. H. Lawrence or Tarkovsky into an occasion to dissect the oddities of his own personality. At worst, this kind of writing can degenerate into something like an artfully curated social media feed, but Lerner writes with a poet’s attention to language, and manages to make his preoccupation with identity more than solipsistic. His failure to make the Lerner who is experiencing things coincide with the Lerner who represents himself on the page and in the social world starts to feel, if not quite heroic, then certainly a matter that concerns all of us, as we obsess over our profile pictures and work out at the gym.

“10:04” connects this anxiety about identity with metaphysical questions concerning time and repetition. The title is taken from “Back to the Future,” the narrator’s “crucial” childhood film, in which a town hall clock shows this time as Michael J. Fox is catapulted back to his own future, having successfully altered the past. It is just one of many moments picked out by Christian Marclay for his 24-hour video installation “The Clock,” which the narrator visits with Alex. The narrator redundantly looks at his watch as he watches this real-time compilation of cinematic timepieces, experiencing “the distance . . . between art and the mundane.” The book is prefaced by an epigraph, describing a Hasidic belief that the next world will be exactly like this one in all respects, except ineffably different. Without the ineffable, the world as re-presented can never quite coincide with the world as experienced. The narrator notices that whenever he crosses the Manhattan Bridge, he remembers having crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, because that is the bridge he can see. By way of illustration he shows two identical photos (taken on the Brooklyn Bridge), one captioned “our world,” the second “the world to come.” On the final page, he fleetingly closes the gap between the two worlds, between himself and himself. Gazing again at Manhattan, he finally feels able to look at it “in the second person plural,” saying wholeheartedly after Whitman, “I am with you, and I know how it is.” We find ourselves hoping that it is true, for his sake, and for all our sakes.

Ben Lerner