by Ben Lerner.
Granta, 244 pp., £14.99, January 2015, 978 1 84708 891 8
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The first thing​ the narrator of 10:04 does is make a lot of money. Ben is a poet, novelist and creative-writing teacher, a career that for most of his working life seems not to have made him rich. But recently he had a story in the New Yorker. Book publishers were interested. ‘Soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses,’ he signed a ‘strong six-figure contract’ and he and his agent are eating an expensive celebratory meal ‘in what would become the opening scene’.

For a story limited to the life of one man in New York City over the course of a year or so, many things happen to Ben in 10:04. It’s a bewildering time. He’s diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition. His best friend, Alex, asks him to conceive a child with her. And of course he comes into an unusually large amount of money. He also tutors an eight-year-old boy from an undocumented Salvadorean immigrant family, goes out with a glamorous and maddeningly self-sufficient artist, and prepares for two separate once-in-a-generation storms to hit the city.

But there’s another kind of plot running through 10:04: the story of how Ben set out to write one version of his novel and then scrapped his plan and came to write something different. It’s this seemingly obscure, self-reflexive subplot around which 10:04 is bent. The idea Ben abandons is a high-concept story about a writer who forges letters to himself from more famous writers so he can sell his papers for a lot of money to a university library. What Ben ends up writing is something closer to the truth of his own experience, the book that becomes 10:04. Instead of a writer who’s a forger, the narrator becomes a writer who’s just a writer – all his fabrications are lawful, as are his earnings. They nonetheless raise plenty of moral questions.

Those familiar with Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, will find that Ben seems like an older version of his previous narrator, Adam Gordon: same wit, less lying, posturing, drug-taking and freaking out. Also new: political convictions! It might be useful to think of the difference between Adam and Ben as the difference between a character living off non-profit arts funding and a character with a huge book advance. Adam, a promising young American poet living in Spain on a fellowship, is doing work deemed culturally valuable but monetarily worthless. He’s one of a tiny number of people allowed to make a modest living writing difficult imaginative literature that almost no one is expected to read. This nicely sets him up as a comic idler; an anxious neurotic preoccupied with his failure to have authentic responses to art or world-historical tragedies or other people; a man who, in lieu of close relationships with women, has a series of romantic pratfalls.

Ben’s situation is different: he’s a poet and previously little read novelist whose work is suddenly deemed by the publishing industry to have commercial value. His writing is worth something on the market, a fact that seems to focus his attention on the market itself, on his place in it, on the way that it binds people together around the world to the greater advantage of some than of others. As he gets drunk at the decadent celebratory meal of octopus and other sea creatures, a meal served and cleared away by Latino waiters, Ben reckons his advance ($275,000 after taxes and agent’s cut) as ‘about 25 years of a Mexican migrant’s labour, seven of Alex’s in her current job. Or my rent, if I had rent control, for 11 years. Or 3600 flights of bluefin, assuming the species held.’

I swallowed and the majesty and murderous stupidity of it was all about me, coursing through me: the rhythm of artisanal Portuguese octopus fisheries co-ordinated with the rhythm of labourers’ migration and the rise and fall of art commodities and tradeable futures in the dark galleries outside the restaurant and the mercury and radiation levels of the sashimi and the chests of the beautiful people in the restaurant – co-ordinated, or so it appeared, by money.

And in the next minute, he’s wondering what his share of that money means for him. Will it change the way he writes? Does he have some special obligation to entertain or edify or disturb his now much larger readership? What does all that money mean for a writer with progressive politics?

At about this point in many reviews of 10:04, critics acknowledge that these are rarefied questions and you can be excused for rolling your eyes, suspending your interest, and wishing that the novelist would stop writing about writing and stick to writing about everything other than writing – ‘life’, or some such. The impatience is partly testament to the fact that Lerner is very good at writing about life, which we can appreciate even more with this second novel. Ben, for instance, has close relationships with women, and one could happily follow him and Alex all day as they walk around the city hashing out the sperm question and a lot of other things besides. Friendship between men and women, that still historically new and socially transformative phenomenon, is a rare enough subject in fiction that the case of Ben and Alex is notable. They met in college and became close some years later when they found themselves living in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood and strolling the borough’s streets together:

Six years of these walks on a warming planet … had rendered Alex’s presence inseparable from my sense of moving through the city, so that I intuited her beside me when she wasn’t; when I crossed a bridge in silence, I often felt it was silence shared between us, even if she was visiting her parents upstate or spending time with a boyfriend, whom I could be counted on to hate.

Ben at first assumes that it’s for his positive qualities that Alex has selected him for sperm donation: ‘because we were best friends, of course – because our relationship was more durable than any marriage we could imagine, because she thought I was smart and good’. But one afternoon while he’s nervously shepherding his eight-year-old tutee, Roberto, through the Museum of Natural History, a different possibility flashes before him: ‘She wants you to donate the sperm precisely because she doesn’t think you’d ever get it together enough to be an active father.’

She doesn’t want to do it entirely alone, but she doesn’t want to do it with a full partner; you come from great stock – Alex loved my parents – and will never go totally AWOL, but you’re also sufficiently infantile and self-involved to cede all the substantial parenting to her. She chose you for your deficiencies, not in spite of them, a new kind of mating strategy for millennial women whose priority is keeping the more disastrous fathers away, not establishing a nuclear family.

The novel leaves both possibilities open. In any case, before he’s entirely sure he wants to be a father, Ben is at a sperm donation office holding a specimen collection cup and surveying the extensive menu of video pornography. Lerner is alive to the comedy of the visit: the procedure will surely pose challenges for our sensitive narrator; will he find a way to surmount them?

In both his novels, Lerner uses standard comic situations (drunkenness, lechery, lies and misunderstandings, ineffectual strutting and preening) to portray a particular kind of contemporary clown: the extensively educated man with all the advantages who has stretched his youth into his twenties, then his thirties, evading conventional professional responsibilities and deferring personal ones. You wouldn’t confuse Lerner’s voice or his plot structures with Jonathan Franzen’s or Sam Lipsyte’s or Benjamin Kunkel’s. But in moments of high capering, Ben and Adam can seem to be iterations of a collective character we’ve met in other novels of the last twenty years. As 19th-century Russians fight duels and gamble, late 20th and 21st-century Americans confess to episodes of excruciating, sexually themed embarrassment. They cryptically acknowledge their morally compromised positions near the top of an unfair social system, and at the same time register and lament a loss of status.

But 10:04 is also an attempt to transcend the kinds of situation, attitude and form of expression that this character is typically stuck with. One of the unusual things that Lerner does with his narrators is to allow them to be unapologetically articulate and mandarin in sensibility. They are writers, which accounts for their fluency and their interest in how poetry and fiction work. Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 incorporate passages of literary and art criticism (on John Ashbery’s poems, or Christian Marclay’s film The Clock) into their narratives, some of it taken almost verbatim from Lerner’s own published essays. It’s a remarkable thing to create a narrator who can credibly launch into actual written criticism in a way that seems natural and unforced. It also marks a closeness between narrator and author that we don’t usually see. Author surrogates are more often writerly types than actual writers – academics or journalists if not artists or musicians or something else entirely. We gamely suspend disbelief when the non-novelist turns out to sound like a novelist, though it’s harder for readers today (than, say, in Updike and Bellow’s heyday) not to find the everyman’s lyrical flights distracting and artificial. The best a writer can do is to exaggerate his narrator’s improbable eloquence into a kind of sublime running joke, though that usually still means that any direct discussion of Ashbery is out. But Lerner’s poet and poet/novelist can shoot straight; their ruminations on matters of art are an important vein of sincerity in his novels. The most cerebral parts give the books substance: not just intellectual substance, but fictional substance – they make Adam and Ben seem real.

Ben’s political avowals, on the other hand, have a different ring to them. He has progressive commitments: his hesitation about fatherhood is inflected by his anti-capitalist leanings. While he’s making dinner for an Occupy Wall Street protester (who’s come to his apartment to use his shower), Ben finds himself enjoying the process of cooking for another person and suddenly wants to have a child. Then, just as suddenly, he ‘recoiled’ from the desire:

So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anti-capitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household, that almost caricatural transvaluation of values lubricated by wine and song.

What should you do instead?

What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostasising as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co-construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit.

These rushes of political argument, hyper-articulate yet opening out into suggestive slogans, leave themselves open to a lightly satirical reading. Ben is not quite given the full dignity of his political opinions, as he is with his opinions about literature and art. Maybe it’s because his opinions on art come out of his work as a writer but his convictions about capitalism don’t lead to any kind of political action. Or maybe it’s because he is, in the end, going to agree to have a child with Alex anyway, and to spend a big portion of his advance on producing offspring (through expensive artificial insemination procedures not covered by his or Alex’s health insurance). To paraphrase a line of Lerner’s from elsewhere in the book, the above adamant ‘no’ to childrearing turns out to be just a moment in the dialectic of his ‘yes’.

While​ much of his Brooklyn life is up in the air – he might need heart surgery, he doesn’t know if Alex will get pregnant, he doesn’t know exactly how he’s going to expand his short story into a novel – Ben leaves the complications behind for a prestigious five-week writer’s residency in Marfa, Texas. He brings only one book with him, his Library of America edition of Whitman’s collected writing, because he’s going to be teaching a course on Whitman the following semester. The choice is fateful. He spends his days sleeping and his nights reading Whitman’s Specimen Days:

Part of what makes the book bizarre is that Whitman, because he wants to stand for everyone, because he wants to be less a historical person than a marker for democratic personhood, can’t really write a memoir full of life’s particularities. If he were to reveal the specific genesis and texture of his personality, if he presented a picture of irreducible individuality, he would lose his ability to be ‘Walt Whitman, a cosmos’.

The passages in the memoir that are ‘most riveting and disturbing and particular’ are those about the Civil War:

What disturbed me as I read was what I perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the delight he took in the willingness of young men to die for the union whose epic bard he felt he was destined to be, and his almost sensual pleasure in the material richness of the surrounding carnage. Maybe I was projecting, but when Whitman walks the makeshift hospitals delivering to the wounded gifts of money that the rich have asked him to distribute, when he gives tobacco to those who haven’t suffered damage to the lungs or face, I thought he was in a kind of ecstasy. From the distance of my residency late in the empire of drones, his love for the young boys on both sides whose blood was to refresh the tree of liberty was hard to take.

One night Ben falls asleep in the wee hours with Whitman in his lap and is awakened by the sound of men – Mexican immigrants – making repairs to the roof of the bungalow he’s staying in. He tries ‘to imagine how they imagined me or the other residents in the houses they maintained, residents whose labour could be hard to tell apart from leisure, from loafing, people who kept strange hours if they kept them at all’. Still in imaginary dialogue with Whitman, Ben begins working on his own writing. Instead of the novel he’s supposed to be working on, he begins working on a poem about the residency itself, around which a new conception for his novel takes shape. It’s during this residency that ‘I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.’

In 10:04, Lerner makes the relationship between author and narrator conspicuously close, more so even than his previous novel. Many of the facts of Ben’s life correspond to facts about Lerner: the critically successful first novel, the substantial advance for the second, his childhood in Topeka, his residence in Brooklyn, his profession, and of course his name. Giving a narrator your own name these days is a suspect gesture, likely to put us on guard: now we have to be extra-careful not to assume that anything about the narrator is also true of the author. Perhaps this is why even some critics who like 10:04 responded irritably to its self-referential subplot. Our ideas about metafiction are still strongly influenced by the 1960s: John Barth, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass. Thanks to the work of this group and the self-named characters of Philip Roth, we might well brace ourselves for archness or emotional coolness (rather than sincerity, warmth and optimistic political engagement) at the first sign of a self-referential conceit.

But Lerner is doing something different with his metafictional plot: he’s showing us, in good faith, how fiction gets written. It’s only after our immersive experience with Ben in Marfa – which is what the residency feels like, as we watch him read and write and think for many pages – that the book’s circular structure takes on its full significance. Ben’s decision to write a more personal book than the one he’d planned (which might echo a similar decision made by Lerner) is a gesture towards intimacy between author and reader, a gesture after Whitman. It may be presumptuous for a white, male scion of the professional American middle classes to offer a fictionalised version of his life as representative of a larger public. It’s certainly presumptuous for almost any literary novelist to imagine he’d have enough readers to add up to a public in the first place. But isn’t that what Ben would be doing anyway, in crypto form, if he wrote about the forger? Instead, he’s going to admit his outrageous ambitions outright, and do his best to justify them. It’s part of the effort of making a writer’s labour visible. And you could argue that the riskiest thing for a writer-narrator to confess is not something from his so-called private life, but his desire to speak to us and move us with his novel.

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