There are quite a few memorable first sentences in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Or, my personal favorite, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
In more than one creative writing tutorial I have read that a first sentence needs to capture the attention of the audience, to entice the reader to keep going. Some believe the first sentence in a book is its most important one, even if it rarely bears the gist of the work. I think there is a great deal of sense in this.
So when I read the first sentence in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, I had the distinct impression that I would be more vested in his book than I had first anticipated: “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.”
So much information in one sentence (albeit a fairly lengthy one). Pretty obviously modern day New York, most likely early fall but possibly spring. “Agent” could be attached to celebrity or enforcement, but seeing that this was not in the least bit clandestine or even guarded, most likely some kind of celebrity. Horrific, but in a very high society, almost snobbish way. Would be snobbish, except there is an open acknowledgement of this not being an everyday occurrence. Celebratory. Something good had happened. But any kind of babies being massaged to death lends a pall over the narrative – for most of us. Callous classiness. Squicky yet compelling.
But beyond all that, beautiful, beautiful words. This sentence would have definitely garnered a high grade in Creative Writing 101.
It’s not often that you come across a book where the language is the centerpoint of the novel.
Not that it doesn’t happen, but usually plot trumps language in a list of priorities provided by an author on demand from his or her readers. Yet sometimes, the words themselves come out on top, not as a coup but as grist, as sustenance.
This is not a review of Mr. Lerner’s 10:04 – that will come next week, after I’ve had time to organize my thoughts in a more disciplined way. But while I was gimbling, I wanted to celebrate some of the glorious passages that I came across while reading his novel, passages that would not fit into a review due to space and subject. It’s not often that I come across language this beautiful in a fiction novel. I want to take the time to share some of it with you.
For example, shortly after the start of the novel, comes this incredible description of the narrator and his best friend; they are of the opposite sex, but have never been attracted sexually. They have been best friends for years; nothing is off the table for them – nothing.
Maybe she broached the subject at the museum and not over coffee or the like because in the galleries as on our walks our gazes were parallel, directed in front of us at canvas and not at each other, a condition of our most intimate exchanges; we would work out our views as we coconstructed the literal view before us. We did not avoid each other’s eyes and I admired the overcast-sky quality of hers, dark epithelium and clear stroma, but we tended to fall quiet when they met. Which meant we’d eat a lunch in silence or idle talk, only for me to learn on the subsequent walk home that her mother had been diagnosed in a late stage. You might have seen us walking on Atlantic, tears streaming down her face, my arm around her shoulder, but our gazes straight ahead; or perhaps you’ve seen me during one of my own increasingly frequent lacrimal events being comforted in kind while we moved across the Brooklyn Bridge, less a couple than conjoined.
That not looking at each other while sharing intimate thoughts, that “conjoining” rather than coupled – is that not the very posture of such a friendship? Can you not see the concept brought to image clearly enough as if examining a photograph?
In another section, too lengthy to fully share here, the narrator reflects on an experience he had after having wisdom teeth extracted. He has dallied over the decision on whether to have an IV done (“twilight sedation”) rather than the more standard local anesthesia. The IV would be more expensive, not covered by insurance, and it would not be more effective against the pain but would keep him from remembering the pain (“The benzodiazepines calm you during the procedure, yes, but their main function is to erase your memory of whatever transpires: the dentist getting leverage, cracking, a sudden jet of blood.”). He decides at first for the local (“I don’t want them working on me when they know I won’t remember what they’re doing,” he reasons) but then decides at the last moment for the IV, as his best friend, in this section identified as Liza, has known he would all along. She accompanies him to the appointment because she is his best friend, and because the dentist will not let him leave the office still under the effects of the sedation without someone else being responsible for his wellbeing. On the taxi ride back to his apartment, in his woozy state, he sees New York spread before him and the images around him as if in a benevolent and beautiful dream. He wants to remember what he has seen, but knows he will not because of the drugs. He believes if he does not remember, it will be because the experience is true.
I won’t remember this. This is the most beautiful view of the city I have ever seen, the most perfect experience of touch and speed, I’ve never felt so close to Liza, and I won’t remember it; the drugs will erase it. And then, glowing with the aura of imminent disappearance, it really was the most beautiful view, experience. He wanted badly to describe this situation to Liza but couldn’t: his tongue was still numb; he couldn’t even ask her to remind him of what the drugs would erase. While he was distantly aware that Liza would tease him for it later, that he was being ridiculous, he felt tears start in his eyes as they merged onto the bridge and he watched the play of late October sunlight on the water. That he would form no memory of what he observed and could not record it in any language lent it a fullness, made it briefly identical to itself, and he was deeply moved to think this experience of presence depended upon its obliteration. Then he was in his apartment; Liza gave him a couple of pills, put him to bed, and left.
When he wakes the next morning, he has an unsettling realization: “I do remember the drive, the view, stroking Liza’s hair, the incommunicable beauty destined to disappear. I remember it, which means it never happened.”
And thus the chapter ends.
Much later, the narrator – who we know by now is a published author and has gotten a huge advance for the writing of his next book (hence the celebratory meal related at the start of the story) – relates “the origins of my writing”. He tells of being in third grade, and watching the lift off of the space shuttle Challenger along with so many other children, following as teacher Christa McAuliffe was thrust towards outer space, and then witnessing the sudden explosive disaster that followed. He builds a beautiful story of it being a moment of time that was forever crystallized for him, and of being indelibly affected by Ronald Reagan’s words as the President later addressed a mourning nation: We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’ The narrator, as a child, felt “the authority and dignity, of mourning and reassurance” of that speech in his chest: “the sentence pulled me into the future”.
Later, for a school report, the narrator-as-child learns that Reagan had not written those lines himself; that they had instead been penned by Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the President; he further learned that the phrases that so touched him had not even been written by Ms. Noonan, but had come from a poem (“High Flight”) by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, who himself died at age 19 in a midair collision in WWII. And then, that John Magee had “borrowed” from a poem written three years earlier by G.W.M. Dunn, who himself appeared to have lifted a line from the poem “Dominion over Air” by someone known only by the initials C.A.F.B.
But rather than being dismayed by what might be deemed as dubious seizing and passing along of these beautiful words, he found solace that they had been shared through so many experiences:
I find this less scandalous than beautiful: a kind of palimpsestic plagiarism that moves through bodies and time, a collective song with no single origin, or whose origin has been erased – the way a star, from our earthly perspective, is often survived by its own light.
The now adult author/narrator can look back to this experience as when he first became aware of “prosody and grammar as the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all.” And so, the young boy searching for a way to retain a deeply moving experience becomes a writer.
And then further along in the book, because life circles back on itself through experiences both shared and personal, we find the narrator, now entrenched as an author/poet, walking back along the greenway we glimpsed in the first sentence of the book – the book which in the narrative he is currently writing, the book which we now hold in our hands – and the agent, who we now know is his literary agent, is asking, “How exactly will you expand the story?” As they walk, before answering, he experiences the smell of “viburnum, which either flowers in winter or had flowered prematurely, mixed with the smell of car exhaust”, and says:
“I’m going to write a novel that dissolves into a poem about how the small-scale transformations of the erotic must be harnessed by the political.” Three-fifths of my neurons were in my arms as I touched each strand of sumac carefully placed among the disused rails. Never again would I eat octopus.
Beautiful, beautiful words.
**This GITW first appeared on LitStack in October, 22014**