The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death. We had ingested the impossibly tender things entire, the first intact head I had ever consumed, let alone of an animal that decorates its lair, has been observed at complicated play. We walked south among the dimly gleaming disused rails and carefully placed stands of sumac and smoke bush until we reached that part of the High Line where a cut has been made into the deck and wooden steps descend several layers below the structure; the lowest level is fitted with upright windows overlooking Tenth Avenue to form a kind of amphitheatre where you can sit and watch the traffic. We sat and watched the traffic and I am kidding and I am not kidding when I say that I intuited an alien intelligence, felt subject to a succession of images, sensations, memories, and affects that did not, properly speaking, belong to me: the ability to perceive polarized light; a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localized in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.
If that excerpt bothers you, forget about 10:04 (2014). I can imagine some extremely well-read and tolerant folks I know flinging this across the room long before they get near page 50. I loved it, and was sad to finish the novel. The roaming cadence and garrulous elegance of the book, which goes off at tangents like a verbose firework, sucked me in to the extent that I was happy to simply spend time in the head of this “character.” 10:04 is a kind of memoir, or autobiographical novel, about an incessantly interrogative intellectual Brooklyn writer as he attempts to make digressive, timeline-hopping sense of his life, which is that of Ben Lerner, to a degree, or should I say “Ben Lerner.” He the author of the not-dissimilar Leaving the Atocha Station (which a friend of mine lazily and cruelly refers to as Leaving the Atrocious Station), which I liked quite a lot.
The narrator/protagonist pays little heed, in any case, to normal fictional dictates. The story almost feels like a baggy ramble, but not quite: what keeps 10:04 cohesive is the voice, the frequency Lerner tunes into. What keeps it moving along nicely is a carefully-wrought conviviality, which is both literary and loose. We feel Lerner checking himself, observing himself observing, reproaching himself and then talking himself back onside. We experience a kind of perpetual and restless need for validation, that any of this happened, that it’s worth reconsidering, that he saw it as clearly as he could, that he remained open to everything as it unfolded and passed into history, at which point it’s retrospectively up for grabs. He’s not especially fascinated by himself so much as by occupying his particular vantage point within his specific, uncontrollable and volatile milieu, which is both unremarkable and, under the gaze Lerner subjects it to, entirely remarkable. He feels lost, talks about it, feels less lost. Luckily, we’re happy to share his querulous and somewhat neurotic headspace with him.
Despite the bright hospital lighting, emerging onto the street felt like crossing from night into day, or from a darkened theater, a matinee, into sunlight, or, I imagined, like surfacing in a submarine — the threshold between the hospital and its outside was like a threshold between worlds, between media. Have you seen people pause in revolving doors like divers decompressing, transitioning slowly so as to prevent nitrogen bubbles from forming in the blood, or noticed the puzzled look that many people wear — I found a bench across Fifth Avenue and sat and watched — when they step onto the sidewalk, as if they’ve suddenly forgotten something important , but aren’t sure what: their keys, their phone, the particulars of their loss? Terrible to see them recall it a second later; as I observed the hospital from a safe distance, I thought back to the weeks I’d spent sleeping on the futon at Alex’s after an SUV struck a friend of hers in Chelsea, how some mornings Alex, who tended to get out of bed before she was fully awake, would be halfway to the kitchen to put on the water for her tea before she remembered that Candice was dead. (I don’t know how I knew she briefly didn’t know, or how I could tell when the fact returned to her consciousness.) If you want to pick out the devastated or soon-to-be-devastated from the stream of people leaving Mount Sinai, I decided, don’t look for frank expressions of sorrow or concern, look for people whose faces resemble those of passengers deplaning after a long flight — a blank expression as the body begins adjusting to a new time zone and ground speed.
He’s an outsider but possesses high-maintenance empathic tendencies, not only for others but for himself, who he seems to constantly be hovering over, curiously examining each faltering step. This implicit tension produces a fair bit of self-immolating mirth. Not only does he assume the role of the octopus he’s just eaten, he empathizes with pretty much everyone to the extent that it’s wearying. He’s Woody Allen with better glasses and a penchant for arcane or playfully obscure phraseology. He also sees too much at any given moment: events beget reminders that spawn memories and so on. And the book is largely his following these thought-lines. They comprise his character: we subsequently empathize (and if we don’t, the book is a failure) with his crippling awareness of the merest occurrence.
While I stirred the vegetables I realized with slowly dawning alarm that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked by myself for another person — I could not, in fact, ever remember having done so. I’d cooked with people plenty, usually acting as a dazzlingly incompetent sous chef for Alex or Jon or other friends or family. On various occasions I’d said to a woman I was interested in, “I would invite you to dinner, but I can’t cook,” at which point I would hope she’d say, “I’m a great cook,” so I could ask her to come over and teach me; then we’d get drunk in the kitchen while I displayed what I hoped was my endearing clumsiness , never learning anything. Excepting the sandwiches I had made for Alex when she had mono — and even those I tended to buy and not prepare — I simply could not recall a single instance in which I had by myself constructed a meal, however rudimentary, for another human being. The closest memory I could summon was of scrambling eggs on Mother’s or Father’s Day as a child, but the uncelebrated parent, as well as my brother, always assisted me. Conversely, there was simply no end to the number of meals I could recall other people making for me, thousands upon thousands of meals, a quantity of food that would have to be measured in tons, dating from my mother’s milk to the present.
In closely examining his behavior as he goes through rudimentary steps, the kind of habitual experiences that might barely happen, such is their quotidian rituality, he taps beyond the surface into a memory fount that indicts him with masses of info pertaining to his comparative hopelessness or the sheer torrent of related or sub-related corollaries that subsequently render his initial concern insignificant. He buries his disquiet beneath a larger disquiet that he can’t control but which diminishes his overt deliberation.
The proclivities and sensibilities on display here adhere closely to an accepted idea of a certain type of Brooklyn intelligentsia artiste (a fact Lerner has mentioned more than once in interviews about this book), and this could quite easily have been unbearable solipsism and annoying, modish parochialism. It could have been hard to care or worry about such a guy, ultimately, as he wrestles with his conscience about all manner of potentially precious, hard-to-empathize-with scenarios. He’s got a nice apartment; he’s been promised ‘strong six figures’ for his second book (although, in order to claim the money, he’ll have to go conventional and drop a few scruples and ideas about readership, plot and narrative); he’s mulling over impregnating his friend, who he kind of loves, and so a rather odd version of fatherhood is in the offing. He’s a bit of a hipster, and his world is lacking imminent threat or anything like privation. In lieu of real day-to-day peril or susceptibility (despite a certain bodily turmoil centering around a minor heart defect, which may sharpen his temporal sharpness vis-à-vis the fragility of life and potential for mortal danger at any given moment etc.), the anguish is all mental, psychological. Although he is worried about impending hurricanes, which serve to hole him up in his friend’s apartment as he debates the fuzzy sexual landscape he is beginning to encroach with her. Sex is something he can’t get a handle on. These are, there’s no getting away from the fact, potentially entirely small-time considerations, for us, the reader. Why should we care?
It’s funny, first of all. At one point the protagonist feels overwhelmed by the Manhattan skyline and his insignificance and so on. But he mocks himself and exhibits an entirely characteristic slant on the occasion, during which he “suffered a minor lacrimal event.” He can’t say he ‘cried’; too active for someone with such a willfully slippery concept of time and cut away from his own experience by maddened abstractions; he can’t play it for pathos. So he plays it for peculiar, self-mocking laughs: he avoids sentimentality and strips everything down to an entirely functional level, which makes it weird and funny and moving — to me at least. He’s a thinking machine eking liquid: an occasion all the sadder for it being over-examined and robbed of traditional reference.
And I found the diving in and out of self-obsessive musings and reappraisals funny as opposed to precious and self-involved. That he’s making exquisitely dense comedy out of his life, out of his boundless capacity for chasing thoughts (and ultimately his own tail) down tangential lines of enquiry, would seem to have been missed by many. Greg Baxter has written a number of similarish (excellent) books that pursue comparable, self-fascinated lines. Solipsism is not redundant if explicated in a way that brings the world into interesting focus. Baxter’s work, and 10:04, manage to be fascinating accounts of life lived now, fractured and incessantly overloaded, by interesting people possessing intriguing perspectives.
The bleak comedy of overt, nefariously all-encompassing awareness is the territory Lerner occupies and covers so effectively. He’s in each moment but also outside it: it’s funny, or instantly elegiac or nostalgic, but it’s also underpinned by a bemused curiosity that any of it is unfolding at all, that he’s even a sentient body moving through a day and a moment. There’s a savantish determination to subtly emphasize how ridiculous the merest living second is. By obsessing over anecdotes centering on shocking twists of paternity (a friend gets an unwelcome “reveal” fairly late in life re: who her dad is) he seems as intrigued by the solid narrative thrust that the recollected story offers as much as by the devastating issue itself. When this anecdote is related, he and the teller are working in a Brooklyn grocery store (it’s a co-operative at which the users and buyers fulfill a monthly stint in order to keep the costs down — does this happen anywhere else?) and completely forget their jobs. He’s also, earlier in the book, transfixed by the artful expositions of a grand dame of British letters. As with 10.04 itself: it’s the telling.
10:04 rarely feels artificial or arch. The prose flows beautifully, even if (perhaps especially when) “Lerner” doesn’t. He is anchored at all times by an eloquence that deepens the elusive complexity of every act and impression as it serves to ease his dread. That’s the bittersweet heart of the novel: there are always yet further digressions to be made. Where do you stop? There is too much going on in any one second of the life of any living thing to capture everything, but Lerner wants to get at as much of it as possible and finds only more of it in every direction he can never apprehend.
Lerner is dislocated in time and place; his feelings about the next day, next week or last year elsewhere bring that elsewhere into the present. The past looms as much as the present. He often struggles to dissociate distant memories from recent happenings. His mind is a hard drive full of still-running programs that collide and share data with others. As with when the protagonist/narrator, just arrived on a writer’s residency in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, takes a trip to a local facility that’s host to an art installation.
At first I saw nothing through the glass, then slowly made out hulking shapes, shapes that further resolved into what looked like giant flowers of crushed metal or perpetual explosions. I cupped my hands around my eyes and held my forehead to the cool window and slowly recognized what I was seeing as a series of John Chamberlain sculptures, which are largely hewn from chrome-plated and painted steel, often the mangled bodies of cars, an art of the totaled. I’d seen a few of his sculptures in New York, had been indifferent, but they were powerful now, their colors becoming more discernible in the faint glow of some kind of security light. Maybe I liked his sculpture more when I couldn’t get close to it, had to see it from a fixed position through a pane of glass, so that I had to project myself into the encounter with its three-dimensionality. I stepped back a little and regarded his work through my own faint reflection in the window. Or maybe I like his sculpture more when I’m lurking at night among creosote bushes in the desert, nerves singing, my life in Brooklyn eighteen hours in the past, receding.
He sees the sculptures both from a previous vantage point, back in New York, and from this “present” point: in doing so he feels he understands them. The prior disappointment or alternate impression is crucial to his understanding and appreciation of his latter response. Only by moving through time in such a way can he grasp something at both ends. Such contingencies underpin everything. Only under the right circumstances can you see anything.
In 10:04, point A never runs through B and C to D; instead, all those points are there somewhere, swirling around the narrator’s consciousness in an entirely realistic, fluctuating way. It’s a conversation about a time measured by a consciousness experiencing events that largely dispenses with chronology to evaluate all facets of an existence. That makes it sound over-ambitious and grandiose, but despite moments of defiantly niche exhibitionism, it works. It’s about a mind that finds stories lesser than the pervasions of a culture that shape lives, and goes after them by not going after them but waiting for them to reveal themselves in a context that may require years of percolation. How do you make sense of something when you can’t understand it? You build your own apparatus by which you can test and measure, knowing all the while how bogus that probably is. Years may need to elapse for something to make any sense – but you need terms of reference now that may quickly become obsolete and useless. And accepted facts may just be useful In terms of preserving delusions: there’s a recurrent thread about how the Brontosaurus doesn’t even exist. But it — the Apatosaurus (confession: I did not know this. My sauropod nous took a hammering there) — will forever be termed erroneously by many. We build our own worlds, and we build our own memories. Here, with this protagonist at least, we also build our own moment-by-moment experiences, if we’re cursed with a too ardent sense of self-surveillance. Is that more of a pervasive issue now — the inward or selfward gaze and identity crises — than it ever has been, due to obvious contemporary reasons?
There is commentary about the surreality of modern metropolitan life, but there’s also a deference to a sense of values that are inevitably absolutely unique to every individual, defense and maintenance mechanisms regularly dismantled and reassembled. It’s a paean to that, in the end: all those thoughts that run through your head when you wake up at 5 a.m., look out onto a slowly waking city and involuntarily recall a meal you had weeks ago, a film you watched, how someone you love walked a certain way at a completely unconnected point. Things that reside that we can’t get to the bottom of or compartmentalize. We’re all susceptible to a brain that throws us curveballs all day long, and Ben Lerner captures that feeling, the sense that you’re part of something much bigger whose throwaway moments may contain more abstracted truth (a sunset; a sad anecdote; a 90-minute film about time travel) than any news channel or accrued account of events. Everything is just as relevant, ultimately, as everything else, if nothing is, or everything is, dependent on what time it is, how you feel, what you believe in and what world you’ve built for yourself, with all your impediments and prejudices and everything else.
What you’re left with (and it’s more than enough) in 10:04 a voice that’s consciously artful, and hews its shape from carefully selected representative moments and experiences that bear relation only at their point of origin. There is no over-riding emphasis of ‘intent’, other than to universalize a certain kind of arrhythmic correspondence that becomes a generous invitation to lend your own discursive, incomplete fragments some kind of value: this is how a mind works, and makes sense out of an absence of narrative. Living in the moment isn’t easy when each moment’s passing fills you with regret, but 10:04 suggests, conciliatorily, that things that have happened may not have fully happened yet. If you’re “in” the moment, or too far outside it, maybe you can only try to live it after it has passed, or juxtaposed with something seemingly unconnected. The author examines the problem of individual concepts of time up against the march of the clock (which in any case would seem to run at different speeds depending on your state of mind) in a way that makes the book extremely compelling and, surprisingly, vastly entertaining. Robert Zemeckis’s version would be interesting.
A note on the title: it is, as you probably know, the time at which lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future. I won’t bore you with all the easy lines of enquiry that fact readily offers up.
P.S. The distinction between autobiography and fiction has never been something that’s bothered me. I find the fusion of the two (that is, the stated combination of both forms — let’s sidestep issues of what is and isn’t autobiographical (everything)) often very interesting and a lot of books, some more recent — Andreas Maier, the aforementioned Greg Baxter, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Offill, Knausgaard — smelt (or seem to) the two together with often fascinating results. In terms of what 10:04 is, I couldn’t care less: it’s fiction, ultimately. If straddling the two forms leads to work such as this, let’s see more. The dire mis-steps are inevitable but we can easily avoid those.