[Faber & Faber; 2014]
Ben Lerner’s latest novel, 10:04, is an elegant, confounding meditation on the role of literature in a postmodern age. The plot, if you can call it that, depicts the basic events and relationships of a year in the life of an author trying to fulfill his contract by expanding a short story into a novel. The book is set in New York City, between 2011’s Hurricane Irene and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, during which time the narrator is diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome (and its attendant risk of aortic rupture); agrees to be the sperm donor for his closest platonic friend; dates a thrilling but dispassionate young artist; attempts to tutor an Hispanic boy from his friend’s elementary school class; and attends a writers’ residency in Marfa, Texas (no relation). Despite these narrative trappings, the book is primarily concerned with more conceptual matters: what is the place of art in an age of monetization? Why do we tell stories, and does reality change just a little when they aren’t true? How stable is this thing we call the self?
More than anything else, the book is preoccupied with its own genesis. The structure and premises of the book, as well as much of its content, work actively to confuse the distinction between author and narrator, fiction and autobiography. This is far from a unique concern, and to varying extents may be fundamental to the medium of fiction — how much of Woolf is in Clarissa Dalloway? to what extent is Stephen Daedalus fictionalized? — but here it is taken to the extreme. Whereas typically this concern is subtext, in 10:04, this blurred division becomes the primary subject of the novel.
On the most basic level, Lerner goes out of his way to equate himself with the narrator. The narrator’s name, mentioned in passing, is Ben; he is 33 years old, the same age Lerner was in 2012. In a significant plot point, he has edited a “small and now-defunct but influential” literary journal which published, among others, Robert Creeley. (That would be NO: A Journal of the Arts.) He goes on a writer’s residency to Marfa, Texas (home of the Lannan Foundation residency that Lerner held). He is the literary executor of the estate of his mentors, a married couple named Bernard and Natali, who teach “in Providence.” (Lerner is the literary executor for Keith and Rosemary Waldrop, whom he studied with at Brown.) Lest you think I am playing detective, these things are public knowledge, basic background for anyone researching Lerner’s biography.
And all that is merely premise, scene setting. The primary plot arc of the book involves Ben (which I’ll use to refer to the narrator, with “Lerner” indicating the real-life author) writing a book, a fact which we learn in the second paragraph:
[My] agent had emailed me that she believed I could get a ‘strong six-figure’ advance based on a story of mine that had appeared in The New Yorker; all I had to do was promise to turn it into a novel. I managed to draft an earnest if indefinite proposal and soon there was a competitive auction among the major New York houses and we were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene.
If there were any doubt that this referred to “The Golden Vanity,” Lerner’s superb 2012 short story, it is gone by the second chapter, which consists of that story in its entirety, title intact. And this fact, that the book the narrator is attempting to write is the very book you are in the process of reading, is repeated a number of times, in ever-more-explicit ways. Near the end, Lerner writes:
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.
(The book’s cover can be seen at the top of this page.) But what does Lerner mean by “the very edge of fiction”? It would be plausible to read this as “the frontier of fiction,” as 10:04 is a distinctly non-traditional novel, but given its preoccupations I suspect this is better read as “barely fiction.”
Barely, perhaps. But despite the aggressive posturing of fiction as autobiography, Lerner is not content with a clear-cut interpretation. While he uses his own short story for Ben’s, he reminds us that crafting even autobiographical fiction necessarily involves distortion, conflation, and fabrication. At the end of the first chapter, Ben describes the process of writing “The Golden Vanity”:
The story would involve a series of transpositions: I would shift my medical problem to another part of the body; replace asterognosis with another disorder, displace Alex’s oral surgery. I would change names: Alex would become Liza, which she’d told me once had been her mother’s second choice; Alena would become Hannah; Sharon I’d change to Mary, Jon to Josh; Dr. Andrews to Dr. Roberts, etc. Instead of becoming a literary executor, and so confronting the tension between biological and textual mortality through that obligation, the protagonist — a version of myself; I’d call him ‘the author’ — would be approached by a university about selling his papers.
The implication in this passage is that since Ben is Lerner, this is Lerner’s method of writing autobiographically. Just as Alex is renamed Liza, her name is not really Alex. Though we are repeatedly encouraged to read 10:04 as autobiography, we are simultaneously reminded that we can trust no individual aspect to be autobiographical. The equivalence is assured, but the focus is blurred. Furthermore, Lerner’s concept of “autobiography” is broader than most. In an interview with The Believer about his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, he describes the ways in which that book is autobiographical: “Part of what impoverishes discussions about fact and fiction is that they tend to forget the degree to which what doesn’t happen is also caught up in our experience — is the negative element of experience. I think you can write autobiographically from experiences you didn’t have, because the experiences you don’t have are experienced negatively in the experiences you do.”
This outlook further blurs the parallels he’s drawn, but it also can’t be applied wholesale to 10:04. Leaving the Atocha Station toyed with the postures that are here an organizing principle. There are a number of examples, but the simplest is this: the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station was an American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, like Lerner had been, but was named Adam Gordon. This concept of the “negative element of experience” is certainly valuable context for thinking about 10:04, but the project here is much more extreme, much more literal.
* * *
Ben’s girlfriend, Alena, is an upcoming young artist whose paintings are distressed and damaged in order to comment, somehow, on the art object as historical monument. So she is thrilled to learn of the existence of “totaled art” — insured artworks which, due to damage, incompleteness, or other invalidating process, have been declared valueless and their insurance claims paid out. They are kept in a warehouse by the insurer, destined to languish there, never to re-enter the art market. She strikes a deal with the insurance company in which they give her a number of these voided artworks so that she may exhibit them in a show focusing on this little-known process. She sets it up in her loft studio, and calls it “The Institute for Totaled Art.” Ben, the first visitor to the Institute, is astounded by the experience. While examining a Cartier-Bresson print that, so far as they can tell, is completely undamaged, he muses on the implications of its voided monetary worth:
It had transitioned from being a repository of immense financial value to being declared of zero value without undergoing what was to me any perceptible material transformation — it was the same, only totally different. This was a reversal of the kind of recontextualization associated with Marcel Duchamp. . . the opposite of the “readymade” whereby an object of utility — a urinal, a shovel — was transformed into an object of art and an art commodity by the artist’s fiat, by his signature. It was the reversal of that process and I found it much more powerful than what it reversed because, like everyone else, I was familiar with material things that seemed to have taken on a kind of magical power as a result of a monetizable signature: that’s how branding works in the gallery system and beyond, whether for Damien Hirst or Louis Vuitton. But it was incredibly rare — I remembered the jar of instant coffee the night of the storm — to encounter an object liberated from that logic. What was the word for that liberation? Apocalypse? Utopia?
This is a profound moment for Ben, who is perpetually concerned about the monetization of art, and I believe it provides an insight into Lerner’s methodology, the reason that he has Ben “work [his] way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city.” Aware that by selling a proposal rather than a manuscript he is “trading on [his] future,” he sees his book as troublingly equivalent to its monetary value.
Imitative desire for my virtual novel was going to fund artificial insemination and its associated costs. My actual novel everyone would thrash. After my agent’s percentage and taxes (including New York City taxes, she had reminded me), I would clear something like two hundred and seventy thousand dollars. Or fifty-four IUIs. Or around four Hummer H2 SUVs. Or the two first editions on the market of Leaves of Grass. Or about twenty-five years of a Mexican migrant’s labor, seven of Alex’s in her current job. Or my rent, if I had rent control, for eleven years. Or thirty-six hundred flights of bluefin, assuming the species held.
As with the Cartier-Bresson before it was totaled, his reputation, his “signature” has transformed his artwork into a specific monetary value. He must somehow find a way to rob the work of this process. This, I believe, helps explain the ferocity with which Lerner draws the novel into the realm of the literal world. He cannot remove his signature from the work. Instead, he chooses sincerity over irony; rather than transform his “object of utility,” his life, into an artwork, he transforms the artwork into his life.
Perhaps inevitably, this conceptual gambit ends up doing some small but fundamental damage to the novel. Because the story Ben Lerner proposed to write, in which a writer falsifies an archive of email correspondence with prominent literary figures and attempts to sell the archive to a university in order to fund fertility treatments — or, as Ben thinks of it, “another novel about fraudulence, no matter the bruised idealism at its core” — sounds like a story I’d love to read, a novel full of pathos, about beautifully flawed human beings. And I know that Lerner would be up to the task; despite what I’ve focused on here, there are moments of beautiful writing and emotional resonance in 10:04, and they all seem to center around characterization, around the stories and personal histories that bring the characters to the moment of our encounter with them. 10:04 is worth reading, flaws and all: for the story that Noor tells Ben about her paternity, for the scene at Alex’s mother’s house where death and life are wound together — for the countless brief moments when two people truly meet each other, and come away slightly changed, “the same, only a little different.”