Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was a hilarious and affecting quasi-autobiographical portrait of self-loathing that also brimmed with sensitive, critical responses to art and literature.
To say 10:04 is in many ways more of the brilliant same is to say that Lerner’s subjects remain himself, art and finding meaning in the face of despair. Framed by hurricanes Irene and Sandy, two “once-in-a-generation” weather events that never quite reach Brooklyn where “Ben” lives, 10:04 is permeated with anxiety about making art in the age of global warming, and about writing a follow-up to a breakout debut. Among many comically bold statements of intent is this: “I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.” It is also a meditation on temporality and possible futures, a theme that inspires riffs on Christian Marclay’s The Clock and the movie Back to the Future, to which the title refers.
Several sections of 10:04 first appeared elsewhere. There was a story in The New Yorker and two excerpts in The Paris Review, and of the latter, one was a hilarious set piece at a writer’s retreat in Marfa, Texas, where Ben communicates with the ghost of poet Robert Creeley and reluctantly parties with the pretentious art scene surrounding the Donald Judd museum.
I was surprised, then, when the first pages of 10:04 felt less successful. The hyper-articulate, critical riffing swamped the narrative, and the flickering temporality motif felt heavy-handed. I was won over as characters and narrative strands developed, but there is no doubt Lerner is bolder and looser in 10:04, and not all of this boldness and looseness works.
Ben is asked to father his best friend’s child, he has health scares, and he tutors eight-year-old Roberto, with whom he is self-publishing a book on dinosaurs. If some of these strands fail really to go anywhere, and his desire to move “from irony to sincerity” is somewhat overpowered by metafictional play, you forgive it because the charms of this novel far outweigh its weaknesses.
Sometimes Lerner’s forebears seem clear – W. G. Sebald, for example, in the obsessive interiority, the fondness for intertextual devices – and, of course, the figure of the neurotic New York intellectual is by no means new, but Lerner makes all this gloriously his own. His is a major talent. SH
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 25, 2014 as "Ben Lerner, 10:04 ". Subscribe here.