REVIEW: 10:04 by Ben Lerner
Within the first page of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, he managed to convince me to never eat octopus again. The protagonist, a writer who’s set to receive a sizeable advance, is enjoying a celebratory meal with his agent at a swanky restaurant noted for serving tiny cephalopods that have been massaged to death. He describes eating an animal that “decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play,” then goes on to sense “a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localized in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.” This is a rather heavy hinting at the metafictive manipulation to come, and exactly what makes 10:04 a strikingly original and energetic novel.
10:04 is set primarily in New York City, with the story bookended by hurricanes; it begins with the relatively benign Irene and ends with the unprecedented destruction wrought by Sandy. The year between the two storms is long and circuitous: Our unnamed narrator is attempting to tease a full-length novel out of a well-received short story, helping his best friend conceive a child (through in-vitro fertilization because, as she’s proclaimed to him, “fucking you would be bizarre”), dating the acclaimed conceptual artist of the moment, and dealing with a potentially fatal heart condition. There are also two notable, comically trying experiences: mentoring Roberto, an elementary school student from Sunset Park, and embarking on a writer’s residency in Marfa.
Lerner’s protagonist, much like the one in his debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is incredibly anxious, to the point where his extreme neurosis makes him affable. Take, for example, his twisting musings on his own selfishness:
“While I stirred the vegetables I realized with slowly dawning alarm that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked by myself for another person — I could not, in fact, ever remember having done so…On various occasions, I’d said to a woman I was interested in, ‘I would invite you to dinner, but I’m a terrible cook,’ at which point I would hope she’d say, ‘I’m a great cook,’ so I could ask her to come over and teach me; then we’d get drunk in the kitchen while I displayed what I hoped was my endearing clumsiness, never learning anything.”
In fact, the dining scenes are some of the most enjoyable to read in the book. His protagonist typically gets drunk (“All that vanished with the first sip of gin…without ceremony I dispatched the giant steak I had ordered, inhaled it, basically…”), and becomes simultaneously more gregarious and neurotic; these scenes manage to sizzle with manic energy while, at the same time, be somberly observant. Lerner enters staid affairs and builds recognizable caricatures out of some very serious people: “The distinguished professor was sitting immediately across from the distinguished male author and seemed more than happy to receive his logorreah; a younger woman — probably also an English professor but too young to be distinguished — was sitting beside him, smiling bravely, realizing her evening was doomed.”
10:04 is creatively layered in a way that is fresh and exhilarating — the narrator is in the process of writing the book that readers happen to be digesting, but Lerner also includes the short story, “The Golden Vanity,” which gained him attention after being published in The New Yorker in 2012, as well as another fictitious children’s book that he helps his mentee publish. (They are both excellent in their own rights.) One of Lerner’s great strengths, as with Atocha, is the quiet hilarity of his prose; it’s self-deprecating without being overdone. The narrator takes care to point out every bit of absurdity, both internal and observed. The humor (think: awkward attempts at masturbating in the fertility clinic) doesn’t make his more poignant scenes — describing his father dealing with his grandmother’s death, or wading through post-Sandy New York — any less touching. Rather, it bolsters the serious affairs and draws you deeper into the narrator’s psyche so that you find yourself hanging on to every word of his winding, exquisitely-crafted sentences.
by Ben Lerner