A Conversation about Ben Lerner’s Novel 10:04 (Part 1)

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[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).

Your remark that you “can’t read another fucking book about Brooklyn parents or mid-career Manhattan artist crises” intrigues me, because 10:04 in some ways strikes me as just another version of such a book, simply with the substitution of Brooklyn artster (I won’t write hipster, although I just did write hipster) for parent or yuppie, etc.—although I’m perhaps being unfairly prejudiced against its setting and context. I’m probably being unfair and should read more; there could be contours here I’m not sussing out.

The episode with the Occupy protester is fascinating, but I’m not sure again how to read the novel, by which I mean how to navigate the line (if a line even exists) between narrator and author. The whole episode, it seems to me, should be taken as a satire on the narrator’s bourgeois preoccupations—his obsession over the food, the preparation of the food, naming the food for the reader, analyzing what the food means, etc.—all of this jars against a meaningful report of interaction with the protester. (Okay, so I just went back and reviewed the passage—there’s more to the Occupy guy than I thought, but I think the whole bit seems sort of like this whole, Hey, look at me doing my part in my overpriced apartment—or, again, is that what we’re meant to see/think/feel?). I shall continue reading. 

RC: How to read the novel — a great frustration to have for 10:04. As readers, I think we are supposed to exist within this tension, just as the line between the author and “The Author” is very, very thin, as the distinction between parody and sincerity is as well. It seems to me, and I think he has mentioned this in interviews, that the blurry space between first- and third-person perspectives is intentional; the simultaneity of first- and third-person perspectives (and hence fiction and non-fiction realms) is integral to the book’s success as a narrative. And you’re right, 10:04 is another version of the Brooklyn Artster novel (great word, by the way, I will steal it), but isn’t as well–if only for the reason that we are supposed to be frustrated by him. Despite or, perhaps, in spite, of his peers who write from Brooklyn–and Brooklyn cannot be substituted; the presence of Whitman is too strong; the commentary on America Today is too specific–Lerner writes a book in direct conflict with the very system he participates in. (Julia Fierro, who wrote a book called Cutting Teeth, which is about young thirty-somethings on Long Island with their kids in tow, battling against their upper bourgeois anxieties, might not ever disparage the world in which she and Lerner participate. I do have to give him that).


You say “the line” and I think it is accidentally insightful to the project of the book. In a way, I think you could also consider 10:04 a very, very prosaic form of poetry. There is narrative momentum, yes, but there is also so much that should not belong in a novel (blurry perspectives, frequent essayistic jaunts that “should” belong in art criticism, direct addresses to the reader that haven’t been attempted in American letters since, oh, what, Hawthorne? I’m not sure on this one). In that light, if we want to read it this way, 10:04 blatantly takes from Sebald. Again, I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing.

And again, I don’t know what we should expect from characters who don’t totally live up to their ideals and/or ideations, political or otherwise. This could be another strength of 10:04 — the mix of first- and third-persons seems to compensate for this failure — a very human failure. If The Author of 10:04 had been a more strict “character,” we would immediately chastise him for being a bad caricature of a “real American.” I could also read into 10:04, if I felt extra theoretical and asshole-y, a very subtle critique of how American novel writing has regressed into the very bourgeois models that modernism and postmodernism aimed, in oblique and explicit ways, to dismantle. But the fact that the narrator of 10:04 exists within contradictions (“I contain multitudes”) because fiction and non-fiction are blurred by the virtue of his own character legitimates his existence for me. Lerner & The Author both wrote a book to “unexpected critical acclaim” — don’t you find it hilarious that he’s basically admitting he’s writing a story for the money in service to a larger project? Who knows if he really donated his sperm…but I just love the fact that he lampoons The New Yorker and Big 5 Publishing. Also, what young writer, even the “great Joshua Cohen,” would admit, in public venue, to writing something for the money? Lerner’s narrator doesn’t ever aggressively say that he’s a capitalist apologist, but he doesn’t separate himself from it either. He’s trying to work with a genre of being, like many Americans, of being accidentally complicit in structures of oppression and domination (via our tax dollars, our debt) unbeknownst to them.<

I do think, though, the question that whether or not that Lerner has successfully dismantled narrative authority (and authorial authority) and subsequently used this as a metaphor to try and link our subjective “I”‘s back into a Whitmanic model of the body politic still presses against 10:04. But it’s not so much resolution that makes 10:04 brilliant than staging contradictions, problems, failures and, in the end, a bit-better-than-dim glimmer of hope.

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