Review: Stephanie Bishopon Ben Lerner

The same but different: 10:04 by Ben Lerner

In his essay ‘The Creative Writer and Daydreaming’ (1908), Freud described the writer as a ‘dreamer in broad daylight’. Creative writing, he argued, was a form of daydreaming, an adult extension of child’s play. The writer, like the child, deals in make-believe. But unlike the child, the writer’s work is destined to fulfill a wish, one triggered by the more fulsome memory of childhood – a time before the wish had cause to exist.

Reading it now, Freud’s theory can seem a little forced, with the act of writing contrived as a means to an end. Yet Freud proved himself remarkably contemporary in his insistence on the proximity between the biographical and the fictitious, the remembered and the invented. In a certain line of recent fiction, the boundary between these domains is frequently and deliberately sabotaged: think of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012), Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (2008-11), Teju Cole’s Open City (2011). Call it autofiction, metafiction, or the post-Sebaldian novel, Ben Lerner’s 10:04 slots neatly into this genre, treading a fine line between the true and the invented.

10:04 is the follow-up to Lerner’s first novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), which documented the trials of a poet called Adam as he popped pills and procrastinated while on fellowship in Spain. Lerner is also an acclaimed poet and 10:04, like its predecessor, is narrated by a poet-author (this time called Ben), who lives out a thoughtful but fairly routine existence in New York, visiting art galleries, writing fiction and hanging out with friends. The plot comes across as both contrived and insignificant – there is a sense that we’re not meant to take this side of things too seriously – while the prose style is Whitman-meets-Knausgaard-meets-Ashbery: a bewildering mix of rapture, childishness and bathos. Ben is, nonetheless, a convivial if somewhat anxious narrator, who senses an impending apocalypse. A strange, elegiac pleasure is to be had in contemplating the end of the world. As Ben moves through the city – anticipating big storms, looking at great art, and having awkward sex – the novel shifts between the fictional and the essayistic.

Lerner is often referred to as a poet who writes or has written novels. Rarely, if ever, is he referred to as ‘a novelist’. Such outsider status buys him a certain freedom: his position doesn’t wed him to the commonly accepted rules of the form. Rather, 10:04, like Leaving the Atocha Station, exists on what Ben calls the ‘very edge of fiction’, where the difference between art and life is deliberately blurred. This means real people and events can be imported into the novel; it also permits the fictional extension and revision of genuine encounters. Indeed, where the two realms meet is deliberately unclear, provoking speculation. 10:04 is thick with correlations between Ben the author-narrator and Lerner’s biography. In 10:04, Ben (like Lerner) is a poet with one published novel behind him, who is working on a new novel. Both Bens watch films projected onto the wall of their apartment; both held a residency at Marfa; both have written a story called ‘The Golden Vanity’ that was published in the New Yorker, and so on.

I am not especially interested in the facts of Lerner’s life, but I am curious about how he uses and abuses them within the confines of the novel. Such boundary-crossing is compelling in the way that it re-arranges our understanding of the form of the novel and complicates our idea of fictionality. The loosening of categories challenges the certainty that fiction can be read as something false or unreal – something that never really happened. As Lerner describes it, fabrication is a true layer of lived experience, and the meshing of these elements part of his compositional process:

when I’m recounting my dreams I find myself often unsure what I’m recounting and what I’m making up. This is probably a common experience? The way in which it makes you feel like you’re remembering what you’re fabricating—that’s what it felt like to write the novel.

Lerner is talking here to the Believer and referring to his first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. His two novels are, however, so similar in style, in the appropriation of other forms of writing (poem, essay) and in the continuation of an author-narrator remarkably close to Lerner himself, that it is hard not to see this as a key to the riddle of 10:04. And a riddle it is, full of repetitions, overlaps and faulty chronology. It is exactly this kind of confusion – the uncertainty between recollection and fabrication, dream and reality – which trips us up at the very beginning of the book and colours our reading from there on.

In the opening scene, Ben and his agent are walking through Chelsea following a ‘celebratory meal … of baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death’. It is night-time; they are inhaling and exhaling some unspecified smoke and laughing as Ben describes the way in which he feels himself acquiring the sensitivities that properly belong to cephalopods as they are being massaged to death:

a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localised in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.

So far so good. The reason for the celebration is then relayed as backstory:

A few months before, the agent had emailed 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.

We learn that he did indeed write a proposal, that there was a competitive auction, and that soon enough ‘we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene’.

What has just happened? Where are we in time? Was the celebratory meal fictional or real? Can we (and should we) seek to distinguish these categories? It seems we have just missed an encounter with the future of the novel that Ben was discussing with his agent – although we understand this retrospectively, making our close contact with the future a thing of our past. The disorientation is amplified by the fact that the celebratory meal happens partially twice over, each time hovering on the periphery of the narrative: the book opens as they walk in the city after the meal; the meal, as the pre-opening scene, then reappears in reference to the forthcoming novel, when Ben states that a meal identical to the one they have just consumed will become the novel’s opening scene. Only it doesn’t – or not quite.

There is something wildly vertiginous about this moment. Are we reading the scene that was proposed during the meal that was proposed to open the proposed novel? The title, 10:04, is taken from the moment in the film Back to the Future (1985) when lightning strikes the courthouse clock tower, releasing Marty McFly from 1955 and returning him to the future of 1985, which is Marty’s present, and our past. Such a title does not tell us what the novel is about, but instead alludes to the experience of watching that film, which provides an ongoing focus for the book. In 10:04, Ben is preoccupied with our relationship to the future, which includes the future as it was conceived in the past, and with the present as a generator of the future: what we think of as separate realms of time begin to collapse and fold in on one another.

Ben thinks about this phenomena via a series of artworks, ideas and historical events: Back to the Future, Walter Benjamin’s take on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a diorama of some dinosaurs, Ronald Regan’s speech given in the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger disaster, the anxieties associated with forthcoming parenthood. Like a night of vivid, randomly connected dreams, the content of 10:04 holds together in hindsight. The catalogue form of recollection permits this: and then, and then, and then … It is easy, in this way, to smooth the novel out and make a neatish summary of its events and concerns. But if we look closely, we find that references to when things occur in time are often missing.

We next meet Ben at Mount Sinai Hospital because ‘a doctor had discovered incidentally an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurysmal dilation of my aortic root that required a close monitoring and probable surgical intervention’. He is subsequently diagnosed with Marfan, ‘a genetic disorder of the connective tissue’. Sudden death by rupture is a possibility, an event Ben visualises ‘as a whipping hose spraying blood into my blood; before collapse a far look comes into my eyes as though, etc.’

With him at the hospital is his best friend, a woman called Alex. She is there partly out of self-interest: she wants to impregnate herself with Ben’s sperm. We get the backstory of their relationship, before jumping in some random direction and landing in the midst of an attempt to construct a shoebox diorama about ‘the scientific confusion regarding the Brontosaurus’. The diorama is being built by Ben and a third-grader called Roberto and will accompany a book they plan to write on the same topic. We jump again and re-enter the narrative just as cyclone Irene approaches New York. The city moves into a state of emergency and Ben and Alex bunker down to watch Back to the Future. In the morning the power is still on and no trees have fallen. There was no disaster.

Ben is clearly disappointed by this. There was something magical about configuring the near future as apocalyptic. It changed how he thought of the present. Without this threat of collapse, the world seems disenchanted:

I went into the kitchen and drank a glass of water and glanced at the instant coffee on the counter and it was no longer a little different from itself, no longer an emissary from a world to come: there was disappointment in my relief at the failure of the storm.

He gets over it, although instant coffee continues to pop up as an unlikely emissary.

In the following scene, we find Ben uncoupling himself from a beautiful artist, Alena. She has sex with her dress still on, then pisses in a dark bathroom. They go to the opening of her show. Meanwhile, the novel drifts around, with Ben’s sense of his own mortality flaring up every now and then. He knows, for instance, that he mustn’t lift heavy objects. Cue another text break and Ben is walking out of his doctor’s office when he receives a message from an old ‘mentor and literary hero’, informing him that her husband is in hospital after having broken a vertebra in his neck. We digress into the history of this relationship. Ben visits them; he offers hospitality to a protester from the Occupy Movement; he and Alex go out to watch Christian Marclay’s 24-hour movie The Clock (2010). We pause here. While Ben sits in the cinema, things get really interesting and any attempt to provide a clean, retrospective summary begins to falter.

The Clock, as Ben describes it, is ‘a 24-hour montage of thousands of scenes from movies and a few from TV edited together so as to be shown in real time’, so that ‘time in and outside of the film is synchronized’. Not long into watching the film, Alex falls asleep and Ben checks the time on his phone. He is struck by the absurdity of this gesture, given that the film itself is telling him the time. The doubleness of time has a bewitching effect and it is in this moment that Ben decides to write more fiction, despite having promised his poet friends that he would not. He develops the idea for a story that will ‘involve a series of transpositions’. His medical condition will be shifted ‘to another part of the body’ and names will be changed. The protagonist will be ‘a version of myself; I’d call him “the author”.’ It will be about the ‘crossing of reality and fiction’.

The story, ‘The Golden Vanity’, is accepted by the New Yorker (as happened to the real Ben Lerner’s story of the same title) and in the next chapter the piece appears in full. But here’s the rub: the reality that the ‘The Golden Vanity’ purportedly refers to is the first part of the narrative of 10:04, a fiction that itself echoes elements of Lerner’s historical person. Lerner is audacious in his borrowings. We do not get a soft reference to the reality portrayed in 10:04 – we get an exact repetition with a little twist here and there: identical details reappearing in a different place and a different time.

While Ben and Alex waited in line to watch The Clock, Alex told Ben that she had to get her wisdom teeth out and was unsure whether to ‘do local anaesthetic or a heavier IV thing’. In ‘The Golden Vanity’ the protagonist, a male author who has written a semi-autobiographical novel, is told he must have his wisdom teeth removed and ‘could elect IV sedation … or just local anaesthetic’. He has a good friend called Liza, and spends much time discussing the pros and cons of either form of sedation.

At a later point, Ben meets some friends at a bar, which is ‘twilit in the speakeasy fashion, dark wood and tooled tin ceiling most of the seating in paneled booths, no music’. This is almost identical to the description of the bar that Ben went to with friends earlier on in 10:04 ‘lit in the speakeasy fashion, dark wood and tooled tin ceiling, no music’.

The repetitions also work in the opposite direction, so that sections of writing first encountered in the short story reappear later in the novel. For example, in ‘The Golden Vanity’ the author discusses his literary archive:

Almost all the correspondence about the magazine was email and I had a different email accounts for much of that time. I never printed anything. What I do have is boring, logistical.

This reappears word for word in a conversation Ben has with a visiting writer, when they are discussing his virtual novel.

We are not immediately conscious of these repetitions. Rather, there is a growing feeling of strange familiarity, as if we have been here before but can’t remember when. At a different point in time, Ben’s friend Alex quotes his short story back to him, hectoring him with his own observations, as if he and the protagonist of the story were identical:

It was the only kind of first date he could bring himself to go on, the kind you could deny after-the-fact had been a date at all.

The proximity of these ‘fictional selves’ is played on within the story: ‘You sound like your novel,’ a character says at one point to the author-narrator of ‘The Golden Vanity’.

Key events are also replicated on a larger scale. The storm that occurs at the beginning of the novel reappears at the end – again, almost word for word: ‘An unusually large cyclonic system with a warm cell was approaching New York.’ At the beginning of the novel, we are close to the storm: ‘The mayor took unprecedented steps: he divided the city into zones and mandated evacuations.’ But at the end of the book we seem further away: ‘Soon the mayor would divide the city into zones.’ With the approach of this storm, the book about the dinosaurs is self-published: copies arrive at Ben’s apartment. Although at the ‘beginning’ of the novel, in the scene ‘before’ the storm, this project was only just underway. Once again, Ben and Alex bunker down and watch Back to the Future, and a few days after the storm we read that Alex is pregnant, although in the opening of the novel, near the first appearance of the storm, they were just embarking on the whole hilarious sperm-donorship-and-masturbatorium thing.

The more we read, the more it feels like being lost in a hall of mirrors, and just as the novel is about to end our understanding of its entire chronology gets scrambled. Meanwhile, Ben’s random trials and Lerner’s wanton repetitions are punctuated by brilliant forays into essayistic thought that slowly take over. Learner shamelessly self-appropriates here, inserting into 10:04 extracts from his own published essays and poems. Such playfulness, Lerner argues, is part of the glory of the novel: a form, he claims, that is ‘fundamentally curatorial … one that assimilates and arranges and dramatizes encounters with other genres: poetry, criticism and so on’.

Autofiction inclines one towards agnosticism; do we, or do we not believe in the world we are reading about? Is this real or not real? Is ‘Ben’, Ben Lerner or not? Does it, or does it not, matter? Much of what is interesting about 10:04 happens in the uncanny borderland between the ‘real’ and its ‘fictional’ repetition. By loitering on this threshold, 10:04 comes close to what one might think of as a literary version of the film The Clock – the film that triggered the writing of the story that became the novel (if we chose to believe, that is). Our instinct, when reading 10:04, is not unlike Ben’s desire, when watching The Clock, ‘to combine the various scenes into coherent and compelling fiction’.

Repetition, as Ben recognises, compounds this problem. At 11:57 in the film, for example:

a young woman tries to seduce a boy; at 1:19 they reappear, sleeping in separate beds; what has happened between them? It was impossible not to speculate on what had transpired in the interval, in that length of fictional time synchronised with nonfictional duration, the beating of a compound heart.

For Ben, watching The Clock, fictional time and real time exist at the slightest variance: ‘minutes from different worlds’ occur simultaneously. While he is glancing from the time recorded on his watch or phone to the time ‘displayed on the screen’, a line comes to him: ‘Everything will be as it is now … Just a little different.’ It is a line drawn from the epigraph, one that captures the sentiment of the novel as a whole:

The Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come … Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.

A fragment of the quote appeared earlier, when Ben stared at the instant coffee the morning after the storm. And Lerner has used this quote elsewhere, in an essay called ‘Damage Control’, originally published in Harper’s Magazine. The essay, fragments of which appear in 10:04, examines the role of vandalism in avant-garde art and introduces us to the Salvage Art Institute (which appears in the novel as the Institute for Totalled Art). According to their website, the Salvage Art Institute

confronts and articulates the condition of no-longer-art-material claimed as ‘total loss’, resulting from art damaged beyond repair, removed from art market circulation due to its total loss of value in the marketplace yet stored in art-insurance claim inventory.

In the essay, the real Ben Lerner handles damaged photographs that nonetheless seem ‘perfectly intact despite what the owners and appraisers had decided’. He is struck by their uncanny force: they are ‘just as they were, but a little different’. ‘No Longer Art’, these photographs are changed not so much by damage, but by the removal of ‘the market’s soul’; they are ‘saved’ from ‘the tyranny of price’. These damaged artworks, Lerner writes, are ‘ready-mades … from a world to come, a future where there is some other system of value’. Ben, in 10:04, has the same experience when handling a photograph. In the novel, the photograph is ‘the same, only totally different’.

The doubleness that colours Lerner’s experience of the damaged artworks is similar to the feeling one has when stumbling through 10:04, where the real world, its fictional representation, and the subsequent reproduction of the fiction, differ in small, sometimes barely visible details. The further we progress, the stronger this feeling of uncanny slippage, until 10:04 could be said to resemble damaged goods: a literary instance of Totalled Art, with the novel constructed from a series of ready-made events, objects and people, which are then vandalised: cut up, replicated, rearranged and written over.

So why is 10:04 subtitled ‘A Novel’? In many ways, 10:04 has a structure like a collection of poems. It is arranged loosely, according to theme and experience; it does not progress from beginning to end, so much as shift back and forth, with each individual piece in conversation with those around it. If Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, proclaimed to be ‘a just history of Fact’, assuring us that there would be no ‘Appearance of fiction in it’, the twentieth-century trend was to reverse this, with novels representing real events according to the norms of fictional invention. In the contemporary moment, Lerner straddles these two extremes, emphasising the imaginary as an element of factual life. He doesn’t expect one category to disappear into the other.

‘Part of what impoverishes discussions about fact and fiction,’ Lerner says in the interview with the Believer, ‘is that they tend to forget the degree to which what doesn’t happen is also caught up in our experience – is the negative element of experience’. We can imagine ourselves into things we are not, into places we have not been, into encounters we did not have. Lerner identifies this as the virtuality of the novel, its capacity to function as a ‘testing ground’ for experiences, especially experiences of other artworks. Virtuality, here, might seem nominally different from the concept of fiction, but it implies, for Lerner, a shift of emphasis. The virtual, unlike the fictional, is experienced in addition to the real: one interacts with and manipulates the virtual. In the closed world of fiction, the tendency is to enter into a contract with a single reality. But in Lerner’s virtual realm, the simulation derives from, and overlaps with, the world as it is lived.

The result of such thinking is 10:04, a novel, which, in its conceptual form, is closely bound to the idea of the poem, where

the distinction between fiction and non-fiction [doesn’t] obtain … The correspondence between text and world … less important than the intensities of the poem itself.

We end up with something that is ‘[n]either fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.’

The poem in search of truth, and which records true things, is not held accountable to the same kind of misplaced moral judgment often lavished upon novels described as true fiction. By aligning the novel with the poem, Lerner helps to liberate the novel from the strictures of fictional purity, reviving its capacity to be both playful and moving. It mucks about with the banal and hones in on the exalted: it is a novel that is out of this world.