10:04: A Novel

  • By Ben Lerner
  • Faber & Faber
  • 256 pp.

This story boasts lovely writing, but is it too meta for its own good?

10:04: A Novel

You've come to a play, but there is no one on stage, no apparent performance. Has it been cancelled? The playwright is present, holding court in the lobby with stories about places he’s been and what he’s been up to since he won the contract to write the play you're presumably here to see. On the stage behind him, actors rehearse lines and, from time to time, come down and chat. Their names are familiar; the playwright’s been mentioning them in his stories.

He's a chatty guy, funny and very smart, although, at times, maybe a little too anxious to make sure you get how smart he is. After some time, he bows, and the small crowd there with you applauds. And you realize this was the play.

That more or less encapsulates the feeling of reading 10:04, the new novel by Ben Lerner. It's a work of prose configured as trompe l'oeil painting, but in reverse: Rather than an illusion of reality protruding from a work of art, the reader must struggle to discern the work of art hidden behind what is presented, on its surface, as reality.

Behind all the metafictional razzle-dazzle of 10:04 is a fairly straightforward story: An acclaimed 30-something writer has gotten a "strong six figures" advance to write a novel based on a short story of his recently published in the New Yorker. This author is also involved in another important creative project: It seems a woman he has long adored has, to his surprise, decided he will be the father of her child, albeit — fittingly for a novel so given to misdirection — one conceived artificially.

There are questions about the author's health, the viability of his sperm, and whether his brand of cerebral fiction won't sell too little for him to remain an author whose publisher will tolerate losses for the sake of the literary cred he brings to them. (There's no use, of course, in asking whether the novel will be written, because you're constantly reminded that this is what you are, in fact, now reading.)

Lerner even has his author tell us how he'll write it: “‘I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously,’ I should have said, ‘a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.’”

Lerner's author — or is it the author's Lerner? — narrates in a sort of long-form monologue, other characters and scenes occasionally intruding but never mounting a serious challenge to the primacy of his own inner voice. This is largely a one-character show, and this character can often dazzle, as in this lovely account of being in New York on the eve of a hurricane:

"Emerging from the train, I found it was fully night, the air excited by foreboding and something else, something like the feel of a childhood snow day when time was emancipated from institutions, when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time, or like defeated time itself falling from the sky, each glittering ice particle an instant gifted back from your routine.”

Those readers who momentarily forget the metafictional framing of 10:04 and dive into the partially imagined world Lerner conjures will find that the author quickly jerks them back to the surface. For example, the short story that has won the fictional author his contract is a real short story by the real Ben Lerner. It is included in its entirety as a chapter in the novel.

Perhaps in continually yanking us back — to the account of the novel being written — Lerner means to show us the many arbitrary choices authors can make in writing their tales. Maybe he wants to demonstrate that perhaps life itself is malleable and can be rewritten; that if our lives are in some ways a collective constructed fiction, perhaps we have the chance to wake up from that fictive trance and find a better, alternative future.

Lerner uses a quote from Walter Benjamin as the novel’s epigraph; it ends with the sentence: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” And throughout, he returns to this phrase to describe what his narrator imagines a future, post-capitalist world will be, although, in the end, he surprises by connecting the phrase to something more personal (which, alas, I would be playing spoiler to reveal).

Readers who share his vaguely revolutionary occupy-movement sensibility will no doubt enjoy 10:04, finding themselves very comfortably settled in as a happy choir to Lerner’s protagonist’s sensitive and intelligent preacher.

But what about those of us who do not embrace the true religion? I found that 10:04 does not illuminate the mind of a man who wants to be at "the praxis of revolution" nearly as well as several straightforward novels do (Hari Kunzru's very effective My Revolutions, for example).

This novel wants the reader to ask questions. What is a novel? What part of this is real and what part of this is made up, and is it ever possible to say for certain? Readers who find these and similar questions of interest will find 10:04 to be a compelling read. But for those looking for the long plunge into the alchemy of a first-class fictive imagination rather than a carefully architected novel-as-thought-experiment, 10:04 will not be the one to get them there.

Rimas Blekaitis recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes fiction.

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