The Very Edge of Fiction
By Ben Lerner
Faber and Faber, 2014
As a self-imposed pseudo-challenge, I recently decided to read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” every day for 30 days. Though I left the tab open in my browser for a month, I failed to complete the challenge. Still, each time I re-read it, I was awed by the way Eliot posits a character and then projects on him a haughty, highbrow diction, creating ironic distance between author and speaker. Thus the poem unfolds like a kind of magic trick: Eliot manages to use “mock poetry voice” to write one of the most moving and beautiful poems in the English language.
I suspect that Ben Lerner—who wrote three acclaimed books of poetry before his first novel, 2012’s excellent Leaving the Atocha Station—is also an admirer of Eliot. In his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has created a work of autobiographical metafiction that continually finds new ways to refer to itself as writing—“the author” is never quite the author, the narrative is always one or two steps removed. Lerner as author is a master manipulator, immersing you into the flow of a story and then pulling you back up to the surface at will. On the first page he tells us: “I am kidding and I am not kidding.”
The novel begins the way it began, in “what would become the opening scene”: Lerner and his agent have just shared an “outrageously expensive celebratory meal” on the occasion of his having secured a “strong six-figure” advance for his second novel. The proposal, we eventually learn, was for a different novel, but this is the one he ended up writing: a novel about a novelist who, while watching an art film that takes place in real time, has the idea for a short story (based on his life, but full of “transpositions”), which he then writes and publishes in the New Yorker. When his agent tells him she believes she can get him a six-figure advance if he expands the story into a novel, he commits to it in part to help fund the reproductive efforts of his best friend Alex; friends since college, they are both un-partnered and she is approaching 40, so she enlists his (potentially unwell) sperm in the creation of a kind of family.
Structurally, 10:04 is divided into five parts:
Part One establishes the characters, including the poet-novelist; Alex; a few more close friends, including Natali and Bernard, two older, established writers from Providence who have asked him to be their literary executor, and Alena, his loose love/sex interest; Roberto, a third-grader he is mentoring; and the team of medical professionals assigned to examine the novelist’s heart condition, likely a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome. Toward the end of Part One, the novelist has the idea for the aforementioned short story; writing more fiction, he says, is “something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do,” but the story comes “quickly, almost alarmingly so.” His agent sends it to the New Yorker, and they accept it, with a requested edit. He first makes a show of refusing to compromise his artistic sensibilities, but after several friends assure him the edit improves the story, he recants and it appears in the magazine.
Part Two is, in its entirety, that story: “The Golden Vanity,” which appeared in the June 18, 2012, issue of the New Yorker.
Part Three further establishes the supposed contradictions of the narrator: he’s got that advance and a job at Columbia; he hobnobs with and is clearly capable of charming “distinguished authors,” such as Natali and Bernard, who seem like clear analogs of C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander. (And is the South African author he shares the stage with J.M. Coetzee? Lerner embeds the full text of a lecture he delivered on his origin as a writer, which he attributes to his experience of the 1986 Challenger disaster; this long quotation feels like a formal nod to Elizabeth Costello.) Still, he experiences crippling self-doubt and insecurity in the face of seemingly simple tasks, such as masturbating into a cup at the hospital, or taking Roberto to the natural history museum. He becomes increasingly convinced that he will fail at his assigned task(s): “My actual novel everyone would thrash….I was confident my book wouldn’t sell.”
Part Four follows the author’s residency in Marfa, Texas, a five-week stint his agent urges him to spend working on the novel, but which he mostly spends transitioning into a nocturnal animal, reading Whitman’s Specimen Days, and writing a not-very-interesting long poem, excerpts of which are also embedded in the novel. This section is like a condensed Leaving the Atocha Station: a fellowship narrative inevitably spliced with a party narrative. (I love good party writing and Lerner does this as well as anybody.) After avoiding all human contact for two weeks, he runs into friends of friends in town and is persuaded to join them for a private art viewing, dinner, and a local gathering. Here the author drinks too much and befriends a young intern who accidentally overdoses on ketamine, believing it to be cocaine. He sits with the kid through his k-hole, reassuring him with lines from Whitman (“I am with you, and know how it is”), until he falls asleep, then wanders back home. After going to see the Marfa Lights with another, seemingly equally reticent resident, upon whom he has projected the spirit of Robert Creeley, the novelist decides not to write the novel he proposed, but this one: “the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.”
Part Five, the final section, follows the author back to NY. He accompanies Alex on a visit to her parents’ place in New Paltz, where her mother is dying of cancer; in their basement, the two plod through platonic copulation to assist the risky and costly intrauterine inseminations. Later, back at Columbia, he meets with a graduate student who appears to be having a psychotic break, but his delusions are frighteningly plausible:
“Can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made “this” indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man-made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is becoming marks, drawings of words, not words—you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?”
The novelist takes steps to address the situation, emailing colleagues and the department chair for advice; he emails the student to say he is concerned and wants to help. But:
I didn’t say that our society could not, in its present form, go on, or that I believed the storms were in part man-made, or that poison was coming at us from a million points, or that the FBI fucks with citizens’ phones, although all of that was to my mind plainly true. And that my mood was regulated by drugs. And that sometimes the language was a jumble of marks.
This is not the first or only time that the novelist responds calmly to rational panic. In the next episode, he is delivering copies to Roberto of a self-published, no-expenses-spared children’s book that the two of them authored together. However, Roberto is uninterested, more concerned about the (second) coming “superstorm” and potential for “water wars.” “Almost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030,” the author admits to us/himself, but he assures Roberto there is no reason to worry. If panic is rational, what does that say of the author’s own “irrational” panic—the fears that he might “dissect,” his aorta failing, at any moment, that he is inept to be a father, and that Alex believes him unqualified anyway, merely a donor?
In the final scenes, “Ben” and Alex are forced to walk over seven miles from a sonogram appointment back to Brooklyn in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The subways are shut down, no cab will stop, the buses are full, and wide swaths of the city are in darkness. Given the timing of publication, this must have been written very shortly after the actual storm, in October 2012. So like Tao Lin with last year’s brilliant Taipei and Karl Ove Knausgaard with the multi-volume My Struggle, he’s writing this autobiographical metafiction in what feels like near-real-time. There are clear similarities between Lin’s recent fiction and Lerner’s—though, interestingly, Lerner’s novels are all about the business of writing, whereas Taipei revolves around a writer identical to Lin who never appears to write or think much about writing at all, outside of 10,000-word emails to his parents.
I haven’t read My Struggle, but Ben Lerner has—he reviewed Vol. 3 in the London Review of Books:
Most critics attempt to demonstrate a novelist’s perceptiveness by providing examples of his eye for the significant detail. But part of what makes Knausgaard’s writing unusual is that he seems barely to adjudicate significance; he’s like a child who has taken Henry James’s injunction to novelists – ‘be one of the people on whom nothing is lost’ – literally; he appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).
10:04 is not so maximalist, and its 240 pages are restrictive in their focus. For example, physical descriptions are minimal. We know the narrator finds Alex attractive but not much about her appearance otherwise—because who cares? You know what people look like. Thus the author has decided to ignore his preconceptions about what kinds of novels sell:
“Just remember this is your opportunity to reach a much wider audience. You have to decide who you want your audience to be, who you think that is,” my agent said, and what I heard was: “Develop a clear, geometrical plot; describe faces, even those at the next table.”
Visual description, of course, brings fiction a little closer to the movies, and adaptability of this sort is part of what makes popular fiction popular. A novel like 10:04 that relies so heavily on verbal self-reference could not be translated faithfully into film.
Of Vol. 3, Lerner wrote, “If your attention as a writer is so egalitarian that your memoir describes a bowl of cornflakes and, say, your brother’s face with the same level of detail, how do we determine a hierarchy of value?” His point is that the carpet-bombing attention is what makes Knausgaard’s work so “amazing,” but this isn’t his own approach as a writer, and what takes the lion’s share of attention in Lerner’s fiction is the author/narrator’s own mental processes—the outside world is only interesting insofar as it provides input for this internal drama, which is preferably enhanced by mood-altering substances or at least mood-altering circumstances. Chief among these processes is his tendency to overthink and overfeel himself into a state of sweaty, dissociative obsession.
The narrator’s coping mechanism for these spells in life seems to translate directly into Lerner’s writing process. In the embedded short story, the author’s doctor (transposed to a therapist, in this context?) provides a strategy for dealing with his spirals of doubt:
He remembered Dr. Roberts’s idea. Roberts had said that when the author found himself in one of these “false predicaments,” and he began to draw shorter and shorter breaths, he should just describe whatever little crisis he’d manufactured, what he was feeling, to whomever he was meeting in the same “winning and humorous way” he recounted it after the fact to Roberts.
The narrator does this performance all the time for other characters. But the prose is at its funniest and most deft when Lerner is doing it not for another character, but for us, the readers of this book, as in the museum episode with Roberto:
We stopped before a display explaining the development of the vertebrate jaw and, as I instructed Roberto to sketch the remains of a pterosaur in his notebook, I felt despair spread through me like contrast dye. The eight-year-old is having a fine time learning about evolution while his guide is freaking out because of all the strangers and stimulation; I was the nervous kid far from home longing for my parents, not Roberto; I was the one who kept clinging to his hand; I’d become the unreliable narrator of my first novel.
Another favorite passage: the scene in Part One where Ben and Alex prepare for the first of the two storms, which turns out to be a false alarm, and we see Ben’s mostly secret affection for Alex (how he strokes her hair when he thinks she’s asleep), his knack for describing the charge in the air as the city braces for disaster, the inevitable disappointment (and dissipation of the aura) when that disaster doesn’t arrive. As they wander the Union Square Whole Foods looking for staples, everyday objects are imbued with an “unspecifiable radiance”:
Everything will be as it is now, just a little different—nothing in me or the store had changed, except maybe my aorta, but, as the eye drew near, what normally felt like the only possible world became one among many, its meaning everywhere up for grabs, however briefly—the passing commons of a train, in a container of tasteless coffee.
10:04 is repetitive—recursive—by design, but people who are interested in repetition tend (guess what?) to overdo it, and while at first I found it clever when a simile or analogy would show up in both the novel proper and in one of the embedded stories or poems, I eventually grew tired of seeing the same metaphors and turns of phrase (literally verbatim) over and over, almost as though the book were creating its own system of clichés. When something unusual happens, it’s always for “whatever complex of reasons”; the warmth, whether in New York or Texas, is always unseasonable. (You can’t write a work of near-real-time autobiographical metafiction, or NRTAMF, without the undercurrent of global warming.)
Lerner is capable of beautifully reinforcing a theme, as when the intern in Marfa describes his drug-induced paranoid delusion, where everything that occurs to him comes true:
“And I knew before I thought it that I was going to think: It’s like I’m dead, like I’m a ghost looking at my corpse, and I was trying not to think that because I would die if I did. But then I realized that trying not to think about something is like thinking about something, know what I mean? It has the same shape. The shape of the thought fills up with the thing if you think it, or it empties if you try not to think it, but either way it’s the same shape.”
What an apt metaphor for this novel! The author knows his own somewhat cynical reasons for writing the book; he knows his doubts that it will succeed; they form the shape of the book, so why not put them in the book, their perfect container?
What can be frustrating, though, is Lerner’s almost pathological need to poke holes in that container, to remind you a little too often of what he’s doing. Too, as in Leaving the Atocha Station, he frequently calls his own brilliance (as validated by mentors, committees, and contest judges aplenty) into question, but this show of insecurity is like a pretty girl wondering out loud if she looks OK; he’s only reminding us of his brilliance. They all think I’m a genius, but really I’m a fraud is a little less convincing as a trope in the second novel.
10:04, like Reagan’s (Peggy Noonan–penned) speech after the Challenger explosion, ends with a quote—two quotes, in fact, or rather three, depending on where you stop counting. The narrator’s final sentence quotes Whitman, and then a kind of post-script epigraph quotes Reagan quoting Back to the Future, one of the central motifs in the novel. His tendencies to overreach and self-sabotage aside, what makes Lerner one of the most compelling young writers working in both fiction and poetry is that he’s fascinated by, and engaging convincingly with, fascinating things—time, possibility, the future (and how the present is already the future), levels of reality and the points where they cross over.