[Context/editorial note: Ben Lerner's new novel 10:04 wasn't on my radar until Ryan Chang, who has been contributing reviews, riffs, citations, and other good stuff to this blog for the some time now, brought it up. He digs it, I don't---but in fairness, I haven't finished it yet. I was determined to abandon it, but Ryan's emails kept me interested enough to continue; our conversation of the past five days is presented below. The book frustrates and rewards; at times I've laughed out loud and at other moments I've sprained my eyeballs by rolling them. More to come, because this is pretty long---but I think Ryan, who offers the bulk of the analysis here, makes a strong case for Lerner's book. -- ET].
Edwin Turner: Got an e-galley of the Lerner book. I don’t know if it’s that I’m almost exactly the same age as Lerner/the narrator or what, but I really really hate it so far! He’s very smart and the sentences are often great, but I find myself rolling my eyes at a lot of what he’s doing—it’s probably me not him. The narrative voice strikes me as so thoroughly inauthentic that I want to grab the narrator by the lapels and shout, Quit aping Sebald, quit trying to show how clever you are, and just observe and report! Again, it’s probably me not him.
Ryan Chang: I know what you mean; though it won’t bear any difference to your reading, I can attest personally to the diction & syntax of the narrator and Lerner himself (indeed, he does speak like that). I don’t think it’s an affectation, but I think it’s real “poet-y.” It is a criticism I forgive b/c I see that the tension between authenticity (of time) and inauthenticity (of time; especially exemplified in the Whole Foods/Instant coffee scene — which narrative context of time determines the Real, the Market (or its interpretation of Universal time) or our intuition (something like Whitmanic time, where time is experienced not on a linear, progressive plane but a circular, lateral one?)) is a crucial thread that runs throughout 10:04 and in Lerner’s other work. That said, I know that in reviews to come of the book he’ll get slammed for that (I think the Kirkus review already did this).
A lot of my friends echo your distaste for Lerner for those exact same reasons, and I totally see why, and I’m kind of annoyed by it too. For me, the success of the book lies in the reclamation of fiction as a communal space from fetish book object/commercial futurity (author advances, agents, contracts, etc. — you already get some of this early on but there is more to come in a beautifully scathing scene of the NYC literary scene) And also, a kind of shiv to the Standard American Novelistic Form that reinforces traditional forms of American identity-making that Gass/Gaddis/Markson et al. have been doing for years and, I think, a poisonous strain of American political sentimentality that keeps most of us “depressed.” I think, too, because I’ve read it twice now, that there is an acknowledgment of his complicity in the very machines he participates in, and an inability, at least on his own, to dismantle those systems. Not sure if we should forgive him for criticizing the bourgeois Food Co-Op while being a member, albeit begrudgingly or tolerate his admission. There’s a lot of celebration of Whitmanic politics in that book, a return to a kind of Whitmanic democratic person is a return to a democratic reading is a return to a “real” democracy shared through the space of the book, of the position of the reader looking at an object and knowing that her “I” is shared amongst several. I’m not sure if you’ve gotten here yet, but he keeps intoning this phrase “bad forms of collectivity” as a better solution than nothing, than “modernist difficulty as resistance to the market.”
The Sebald comparison is apt, esp. with the form & diction & syntax, and I agree with you–Sebald is the master. There’s also something to be said, though, that this kind of fiction-making is badly needed in contemporary American letters on the Big 5 Publishing scene. I mean, I can’t read another fucking book about Brooklyn parents or mid-career Manhattan artist crises without wringing my neck. The kind of book Sebald innovated, too, is able to dismantle received ideas of art/history/writing/identity etc.; I may be being too generous here, but I think it’s a form that will see continued adoption on this side of the pond.
ET: So your response made me return to the book, Ryan. The line that made me quit was something like, “The place was so quiet I could hear the bartender mixing our artisanal cocktails” or something like that—-I’m still not sure how to read that line as anything but a parody, but I think that the narrator, author, and writer are all sincere in trying to capture or document a particular time/feeling with the phrase. And as I continued reading, I was rewarded by the episode of the older poets/mentors, and their “daughter,” whom the narrator obsessed over—a very fine passage—humorous, reflective, a kind of parodic-but-sincere take on wanting to belong to a particular artistic scene. (What continues to unsettle me is the narrator’s assurance of his own achievement, although I could be wrong).
“The White Blackbird”
EVEN BEFORE I REACHED my one hundredth birthday, I had made several wills, and yet just before I put down my signature
my hand refused to form the letters. My attorney was in despair. I had outlived everyone and there was only one person to whom I could bequeath much, my young godson, and he was not yet twenty-one.
I am putting all this down more to explain the course of events to myself than to leave this as a document to posterity, for as I say, outside of my godson, Clyde Furness, even my lifelong servants have departed this life.
The reason I could not sign my name then is simply this: piece by piece my family jewels have been disappearing over the last few years, and today as I near my one hundred years all of these precious heirlooms one by one have vanished into thin air.
I blamed myself at first, for even as a young girl I used to misplace articles, to the great sorrow of my mother. My great grandmother’s gold thimble is an example. You would lose your head if it wasn’t tied on, Mother would joke rather sourly. I lost my graduation watch, I lost my diamond engagement ring, and, if I had not taken the vow never to remove it, my wedding ring to Will Mattlock would have also taken flight. I will never remove it and will go to my grave wearing it.
But to return to the jewels. They go back in my family over two hundred years, and yes, piece by piece, as I say, they have been disappearing. Take my emerald necklace — its loss nearly finished me. But what of my diamond earrings, the lavaliere over a century old, my ruby earrings — oh, why mention them? For to mention them is like a stab in the heart.
I could tell no one for fear they would think I had lost my wits, and then they would blame the servants, who were I knew blameless, such perfect, even holy, caretakers of me and mine.
But there came the day when I felt I must at least hint to my godson that my jewels were all by now unaccounted for. I hesitated weeks, months before telling him.
About Clyde now. His Uncle Enos told me many times that it was his heartbroken conviction that Clyde was somewhat retarded. “Spends all his time in the forest,” Enos went on, “failed every grade in school, couldn’t add up a column of figures or do his multiplication tables.”
“Utter rot and nonsense,” I told Enos. “Clyde is bright as a silver dollar. I have taught him all he needs to know, and I never had to teach him twice because he has a splendid memory. In fact, Enos, he is becoming my memory.”
Then of course Enos had to die. Only sixty, went off like a puff of smoke while reading the weekly racing news.
So then there was only Clyde and me. We played cards, chess, and then one day he caught sight of my old Ouija board.
I went over to where he was looking at it. That was when I knew I would tell him — of the jewels vanishing, of course.
Who else was there? Yet Clyde is a boy, I thought, forgetting he was now twenty, for he looked only fourteen to my eyes.
“Put the Ouija board down for a while,” I asked him. “I have something to tell you, Clyde.”
He sat down and looked at me out of his handsome hazel eyes.
I think he already knew what I was to say.
But I got out the words.
“My heirloom jewels, Clyde, have been taken.” My voice sounded far away and more like Uncle Enos’s than mine.
“All, Delia?” Clyde whispered, staring still sideways at the Ouija board.
“All, all. One by one over the past three years they have been slipping away. I have almost wondered sometimes if there are spirits, Clyde.”
He shook his head.
August 27th.–I have been stationed all day at the end of Long Wharf, and I rather think that I had the most eligible situation of anybody in Boston. I was aware that it must be intensely hot in the midst of the city; but there was only a short space of uncomfortable heat in my region, half-way towards the centre of the harbor; and almost all the time there was a pure and delightful breeze, fluttering and palpitating, sometimes shyly kissing my brow, then dying away, and then rushing upon me in livelier sport, so that I was fain to settle my straw hat more tightly upon my head. Late in the afternoon, there was a sunny shower, which came down so like a benediction that it seemed ungrateful to take shelter in the cabin or to put up an umbrella. Then there was a rainbow, or a large segment of one, so exceedingly brilliant and of such long endurance that I almost fancied it was stained into the sky, and would continue there permanently. And there were clouds floating all about,–great clouds and small, of all glorious and lovely hues (save that imperial crimson which was revealed to our united gaze),–so glorious, indeed, and so lovely, that I had a fantasy of heaven’s being broken into fleecy fragments and dispersed through space, with its blest inhabitants dwelling blissfully upon those scattered islands.
Susan Vreeland’s historical novel Lisette’s List is new in hardback from Random House. The Kirkus review is pretty enthusiastic:
Une jolie Parisienne in Provence during the turbulent World War II years comes to understand love and great art to the core of her being.
In a sweeping historical novel set in Vichy, France, Lisette Roux, a 20-year-old bride who longs for “window-shopping, cabaret hopping, gallery gazing,” grudgingly moves out of Paris to the rural south to take care of her new husband André’s aging grandfather in 1937. “How are we going to survive in a town without a gallery?” she asks in dismay. But Pascal is not your ordinary grandpère: An ochre miner–turned–pigment salesman, he befriended young, unappreciated painters and amassed a collection of Cézanne, Pissarro and Picasso paintings. After Pascal dies, the loving couple is cast out of an Edenic existence following the German invasion of France. André enlists to fight the Nazis and meets a tragic end midway through the book. Lisette’s short stay in Provence stretches out more than a decade, prolonged by the war and her determined attempt to find Pascal’s pictures, which André hid for safekeeping before going to war. Lisette’s sensibility deepens as she grows closer to former prisoner of war Maxime Legrand, André’s fellow soldier and best friend. Marc and Bella Chagall, hiding in Provence because they are Jewish, show up for a brief but blazing cameo appearance. Vreeland, who has proven in earlier art-themed best-sellers that she has an exquisite eye for detail, is enormously talented at establishing the important societal role of art, particularly relevant here as the Nazis both steal and burn it. While her prose can get a bit fluffy (“apricot trees blossoming with pinkish-white petals like flakes of the moon”) and the book wraps up a tad too tidily, her deeply researched novel is mesmerizing.
Merveilleux. Vreeland’s passionate writing is as good as a private showing at the Louvre.