Who is Ben Lerner? This isn’t a challenge or a call-out, more, it seems to me, a logical reaction to his prose-poem of a second novel. The novel is about a writer who lives in NY who has recently been commissioned to write his second novel after the unexpected success of his first. This first novel is never named as Leaving Atocha Station, but that’s about as ambiguous as it gets. The writer makes no bones about the autobiographical mandate of the novel which shall be written, (which we are reading), detailing his relationships, his work, his low-fi Brooklyn lifestyle which, like the novel, seems to carry with it an air of vague if undesired hipsterdomness. A trip to the New Mexico desert which leads to a ketamine blow-out ends up being more Whitman than Jay McInerney. Lerner appears to be a reluctant new literary god, but at the same time there’s an unavoidable self-mythologising at work here. Which leads us back to the question I opened with: who exactly is he? Is the author we read about in the novel anything like the man who writes the novel? Does the novel’s apparent bid for a kind of transcendent authenticity, (again pace Whitman) have any authenticity?
Lerner is hardly alone in going down this path. Of contemporary novelists one can think of Toussaint, Amis (at a pinch), Chefjec and presumably a host of others who I haven’t come across. Further down the line are the likes of Celine, Bataille or Proust. The play between a lived actuality, a fictional actuality and a fictional reality is fertile territory, not least for the poet, whose work is so often made out of the stuff of personal feeling. (Not always, Keats v Tennyson being a reasonable counterpoint, for example.) In his first novel, Lerner’s alter-ego persona seemed quite self-consciously manipulated for comic effect, using the trope of the American abroad as much as his own lived experiences in Spain, suggesting a wilful discord between the writer’s ego and that of the character who represents him in the novel. 10:04 blurs the lines far more effectively. The urge to try to extract ironic capital from the situations presented is restrained (even in the ketamine episode). As a result this novel is less funny, harder going, but feels more heartfelt. The narrator’s concerns remain heavily poeticised but are firmly felt. As he muses on both life and death, (there’s a lot of cancer in the book and he’s also seeking to help his best friend get pregnant), and the fragility of modern existence. Two storms threaten his NY sanctuary, hinting at the impact of global warming; his girlfriend creates art out of art which has succeeded in losing its value, leading us to question the value of value of itself. He helps a friend’s child create a book about the dinosaurs. The final sequence of the novel (which reminded me of the closing speech in Stephens’ Harper Regan) has him and his now-pregnant friend walking the streets of a storm-stuck Manhattan, in what might have been a post-apocalyptic landscape. This feels like a serious novel dressed up as a light-hearted one; a novel which instinctively rejects narrative, although finally finds itself unable to escape it. (In the end the friend is, after all, pregnant.)
All of which gives the novel an evasive feel, as though the author wants to hide the truth of what is ‘really’ happening (or perhaps he’s incapable of ‘really’ recounting it); just as the writer himself remains something of a crepuscular figure. Apparently revealing so much, about his philosophy, cooking habits, sex life, etc, but in practice leading the reader to question what exactly has been said, and, more importantly, what hasn’t been said. 10:04 is a dense novel which resists any notion of ‘flow’;. stopping and starting with a deliberate awkwardness, full of moments which appear to reveal something but are then discarded (like the other novel which the novelist was going to write but in the end decided to delete). Like any fine poem, it’s a piece of writing which would merit multiple readings and exegesis, but sadly this must be left to the grad students who will pore over it in decades to come, as an example, alongside Franzen (although I say this never having read him) or Rippi of the new-neurotic American novel, which emerged in the wake of those brash, confident figures from the late decades of the twentieth century.