It’s not very often that I recommend a book where very little happens. I’ve got to admit that I like a book with at least a little action; I can take a lot of philosophizing, musing, and just plain stream of consciousness rambling, but normally I like to see something that remotely resembles a storyline arc from beginning to end, with a definite conclusion (or allusion to the next book in the series).
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 doesn’t have a lot of that: arc, storyline, plot. Oh, things do happen: wisdom tooth extractions, sex, food, artist retreats, gallery openings, even wrangling with artificial insemination (or the rejection of such)and surviving two super-storms that threaten the East Coast. But these are just vehicles for what might or might not be happening, what memory may or may not prove to be true, as expressed through the narrator’s (and the author’s) expansive, witty, and oftentimes obscure ruminations – but oh, they are such beautiful ruminations! This is one book with little action that I definitely can recommend.
The plot, such as it is, is very simple. A young-ish writer living in New York City has gotten a rather hefty advance on a second book, based on a first book that garnered a lot of praise but not a lot of profit, to be based on an idea expressed in a magazine article.
A few months before, the agent had e-mailed me that she believed I could get a “strong six-figure” advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in “The New Yorker”; all I had to do was promise to turn it into a novel. I managed to draft an earnest if indefinite proposal and soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses and we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene. “How exactly will you expand the story?” she’d asked, far look in her eyes because she was calculating tip.
“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.”
And that’s almost exactly what happens. The book that is being considered by the narrative author in the story, and throughout the story, is the book that we end up holding in our hands.
As the narrator deliberates about what form this sophomore offering will take, life swirls around him. In 10:04, we get to listen in on his mind as it works, which is often very personal, even confessional. Other people come and go: his best friend, Alex (or possibly Liza), who has asked him to consider donating his sperm for her planned pregnancy; Roberto, an underprivileged eight year old boy that the author acts as an unofficial Big Brother with; teflonic lovers, former mentors, others who form into and around the literati of New York, who form a somewhat despotic artists’ residency in Marfa, Texas (a very real place which, according to its Wikipedia page, is “a tourist destination and a major center for Minimalist art”).
This is a book that is written “on the edge of fiction”. It does not read – nor is meant to read – as memoir, and yet the voice of the narrator is so akin to the real life author, what happens to the narrator is so parallel to what has happened to the real life author, that it feels more personal than could be attributed to a truly fabricated character. The stories told – the demise of the space shuttle Challenger, the attendance at a writer’s soiree, shared conversations while working at the local co-op – thrum with an almost painfully intimate sense of the genuine. It could come off as hokey, as contrived, as vainglorious and/or petty, but Mr. Lerner has such a poetic lift to his narrative that it instead comes across as honest and tender.
In fact, I found the writing in this book to be so lovely, that I based an entire weekly column on sharing passages that I had come across which had caused me to pause and marvel, from the opening sentence (“The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.”) to numerous points throughout. When I read a book from the library (such as was the case with 10:04), I tend to use the “On Hold” slip as a bookmark, and when I find a passage I think may be good to use in a review, I tear a slice off the slip to mark those places for later consideration. This book was literally pin cushioned with many, many small slips of paper sticking up willy-nilly throughout the pages.
But in case you may wonder if the book is just too darned esoteric for casual reading (especially if, like me, you enjoy some action in your fiction), know that Mr. Lerner also daubs in a fair amount of humor – often disparaging – and nods to familiar popular culture throughout, that brings the text to a very accessible level. After all, the very title, 10:04, alludes to the moment in time displayed on the town hall clock tower in the film Back to the Future, when lightning strikes and Marty McFly is thrown back to his own future after having successfully altered his past. Yet, rather that it being a simple metaphor as to what is happening in the book, it also manifests itself as a moment utilized in Christian Marclays’ 24-hour film installation, “The Clock” (a real film artist’s real installation, made up with time references for every minute of the day derived from thousands of movie clips), which the narrator and his friend Alex visit early in the book (and which actually was on exhibit in New York’s Paula Cooper Gallery in 2011). So not only does the story reference a popular film that was “crucial” to the narrator at a young age, this film also becomes important in the narrator’s present (in that he and Alex made it a touchpoint to watch the movie during times when they are stranded in her apartment due to weather), and it also appears firmly tied to the eternal, in a work of kinetic and lively art.
And actually, that consideration of Back to the Future is a good encapsulation of the entire book. Many levels, many movements through and around time and back and forth through time, many ways of looking at a single moment, many ways of interpreting a single moment, or returning to a single moment with an expanded sensibility, all bound up with utterly gorgeous language expressed in utterly gorgeous ways…. there may not be much “action” in 10:04, but there certainly is a heckuva lot going on.