This review first appeared in The Sunday Business Post.
Ben Lerner’s extraordinary second novel begins with a classically postmodern flourish: the author, having just eaten a decadent New York dinner (consisting of baby octopuses that have been “literally massaged to death”), looks down from the High Line across Tenth Avenue and tells us what his book will be about: “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously […] a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.”
Contemporary American Fiction by Writers Under Forty (David Foster Wallace, the patron saint of the field, would abbreviate this to something like CAF/WU40) has taught us to greet pronouncements like this as bits of airy irony – to expect of any novel that begins with such a statement that it will consist of a nebbishly hermetic account of why such a project is impossible. But Ben Lerner, it turns out, is deadly serious. He means to do what he says: he means to attempt an escape from the trap of postmodern irony and fashion a new kind of political, or poetic, sincerity, with Walt Whitman – the great 19th century poet of American community – as his tutelary spirit. Even to articulate this ambition is, of course, to go right to the heart of what CAF/WU40 is currently all about. Does Lerner manage it?
Of course he doesn’t, I was tempted to say at various points throughout 10:04 (the title refers, enigmatically, to the moment in Back to the Future when lightning strikes the clock tower). But by the time I’d finished it, I was convinced. Lerner is prodigiously gifted: maybe the single best creator of CAW/WU40 currently publishing. He’s so good that he tempts you to make large predictions about his career, predictions like: Ben Lerner may be the future of American fiction. 10:04 isn’t a perfect novel. But one of its lessons may be that perfection is beside the point.
10:04 opens with a 50-page blue streak of flawless prose, of which, in a short review, it’s really only possible to quote a small sample: “Emerging from the train, I found it was fully night, the air excited by foreboding and something else, something like the feel of a childhood snow day when time was emancipated from institutions, when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time, or like defeated time itself falling from the sky, each glittering ice particle an instant gifted back from your routine.”
Lerner is describing the mood of New York City in August 2011, as it braces itself for the impact of Hurricane Irene. Fourteen months later, in October 2012, the narrator walks through the downtown blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy. The novel in between, bracketed by storms, is defiantly unstormy: a plotless melange of fiction and autobiography, unified less by dramatic action than by Lerner’s uncanny way with resonance. Images, metaphors, ideas, and experiences recur, are recollected or permuted, and gain new meanings with each iteration.
This is, of course, an essentially poetic way of writing and thinking. It’s no surprise to find that Lerner began as a poet, publishing three collections of verse before his first novel, 2010’s Leaving the Atocha Station. His poetry (like his prose) is spiky, casual, intimate. There is an artisanal quality to Lerner’s stuff, as if it were the work of a stubborn hobbyist of genius.
His language sets registers jostling: the literary, the industrial, the neurological. Of New York he writes: “I was aware of the delicacy of the bridges and tunnels spanning it, and of the traffic through those arteries, as though some cortical reorganisation now allowed me to take the infrastructure personally, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the collective body.”
Highfalutin guff, you might protest. But people said that about Whitman, too. To move beyond the dead end of postmodern irony while acknowledging its terrible seductiveness is Lerner’s project, and he doesn’t always succeed. 10:04 has a patched-together quality that occasionally detracts from the wonder of its many astonishing perceptions. At one point Lerner simply reprints a short story he published in The New Yorker in 2011, apparently at a loss as to how he might otherwise include it in his scheme. It’s much the worst thing in the book.
But as the novel goes on, its wanderings and digressions begin to add up. Lerner ends his novel with a Whitman quote, from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1855): “I am with you, and I know how it is.” In a writer less talented, this would be laughable. But Lerner makes it work. He has done that most remarkable thing: made his life resonate in a universal (or semi-universal) way. No irony here: Ben Lerner is with you; he knows how it is. His novel makes you feel less alone. Of how many recent examples of CAF/WU40 can you say that?