I was pleased when Josh informed me that 10:04 had secured its place in the finals for the adult Porter Square Book of the Year, but also a little surprised. Ben Lerner’s astonishingly eloquent writing exudes intelligence (he did, after all, win a MacArthur “Genius” Award). This is no great revelation, considering that he is a poet, and wields a poet’s command of language in his prose. However, his novels are not widely known; his poetry even less so. So hurrah for the fans at Porter Square Books!
Lerner’s status in the literary world features heavily in his writing, and his narrators always seem to be suspiciously autobiographical. Part of the subtext in 10:04 appears to be Lerner’s own struggle with literary success. As his main character ponders, what does it mean to receive an enormous advance for a novel without any concern for how well it sells? So long as it pleases the intelligentsia, all seems to be well. This becomes the backdrop for Lerner’s protagonist avatar of himself.
Lerner (and his character’s) writing rests in a niche community of highbrow literary critics. They determine what is “good” or “bad.” That’s all that matters. Luckily for our Lerner-esque narrator, he is considered “good.” Because of this, he lives the life of the 1%, all the while thinking of himself as a normal guy: a persona non grata amongst the elites.
Meanwhile, bizarre but realistic occurrences occupy his daily life. He is potentially diagnosed with a fatal illness. Then again, the doctors aren’t sure. His best female friend (who is single) wants to have his baby, but not to sleep with him, so asks him to donate sperm for IVF. The role he is to play in his future child’s life is unknown by both of them, and the reader senses their feelings for one another are even more confusing. He decides to fund the procedure by writing a novel about writing a novel about the situation.
Then again, maybe all the above is just part of the book for which he received a six-figure advance, but is struggling to write. What is based on Ben Lerner’s life, and what is fiction? Is it all fiction? By making the story so near to his own life, Lerner fades himself out of the story. He writes writing within writing so that the reader simply becomes lost in searing self-reflections that are relatable, yet at the same time foreign. Nobody’s life is driven by a linear plot. Rarely are they driven by facts, either. Instead, all we are left with are intense emotion, not well enough mused, felt in the eye of the storm.
When I finished, the friend who recommended it asked what I thought. I replied, “It’s so visceral. He’s such a relatable narrator.” I paused, then continued, “The six-figures, the clinical masturbatorium; the baby octopus gently massaged to death in a thousand bucks a plate meal? Not so much.” We laughed, feeling no less connected to Lerner’s internal narrator. After all, it speaks with human intensity, not generally, but individually. And that resonates more than the details.