Ben Lerner’s ’10:04′ Is a Meta-Fictional Masterpiece That Illuminates How Our Minds Work

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Here’s the thing: it’s hard to describe a Ben Lerner novel to someone without it sounding kind of terrible. After reading his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, I found myself saying to people: “Well, it’s about a young American poet abroad in Madrid, trying to figure things out… no wait, come back, I swear it’s really good.” With the new novel, I find myself saying “It’s about a youngish American poet who was surprised by his first novel’s success, trying to write a second novel and figure things out… yes, that sounds like Lerner’s life… no wait, come back, I insist this time!”

This must be some kind of cosmic joke, because his novels are so, so good. I swear.

In fact, Lerner’s new novel 10:04 may be the best contemporary work of meta-fiction I’ve ever read. It concerns, yes, a Lerner-like protagonist who receives a big advance for a second novel, the novel we soon understand to be, in both fiction and reality, the book we are holding. He is also approached by his best friend, Alex, who’d like to get pregnant using his sperm. He has recently discovered he has a heart condition that could end his life without warning. A hurricane has come, and a hurricane is coming. His agent is feeding him baby octopus corpses.

All this, we are meant to understand, is sort of fiction, and sort of not, and part of what’s so brilliant about this novel is the way Lerner casually employs technical innovations to underscore that idea. This novel cannibalizes poetry, children’s books, memoir, movies, photographs, fine art and short fiction, and throws it all together to create meaning — no wonder it feels like life. (This is life, mind you, as related by a poet, each sentence a delight.) The second chapter, for instance, is presented as the narrator’s story in The New Yorker, but of course, it is actually Lerner’s — reprinted wholesale from a June 2012 issue. This is the kind of thing that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could feel cheap or gimmicky, but in Lerner’s, it feels like a discovery. Was this originally an excerpt from a slightly different book? Was this, in fact, the plan all along? Has Lerner left us a trail of literary breadcrumbs towards meaning? He has, I think, even if we can’t always follow.

But though this is indeed a formally meta-fictional novel, there’s something even more subtle going on here, something you could call meta-experiential. This novel, which is so much about literary creation and reflection, also feels like the way the mind works: in patterns, in dialogue, in mirrors. Lerner returns again and again to the idea of the world “rearranging itself” around him to allow for new information, new perspectives. We return again and again to certain moments, viewing them through various veils of fiction, of fraudulence. Lerner’s narrator meditates on time flux or lack thereof (the title refers both to Christian Marclay’s The Clock and Back to the Future). The book swirls in on itself, like our minds do. It gets stuck on things. It gets unstuck. It worries. You may not think you need a book to worry for you, but it’s a surprisingly pleasant feeling.

At the end of the novel, Lerner’s narrator and Alex look across a disaster-deadened New York:

We saw a bright glow to the east among the dark towers of the Financial District, like the eye-shine of some animal. Later we would learn it was Goldman Sachs, see photographs in which one of the few illuminated buildings in the skyline was the investment banking firm, an image I’d use for the cover of my book — not the one I was contracted to write about fraudulence, but the one I’ve written in its place for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction.

Lerner’s novel is indeed this: a triumph teetering at the edge of fiction. It’s an edge I wish more writers would press against.