Adam Gordon, the young poet-narrator of Ben Lerner’s 2011 fiction debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, was unsure of whether he was artist or fraud. He held himself at a postmodern remove from his life, as though art were the way to resist it. The unnamed protagonist of Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, by contrast, no longer, really, has such an option: for him, life and art are hopelessly muddled, personally, economically, and politically too. Like he and Lerner, whom he dogs like a reflection in a darkened glass, they are the same — if just a little different.
The novel is set between hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and the Brooklyn-based writer and teacher is both incubating a second novel and attempting to get his best friend pregnant through fertility treatments paid for with his advance (“faking the past to fund the future,” as one character cleverly puts it, though the setup is redolent of romantic comedy). Around him hovers a sense of foreboding, of living in the end times, or at least the beginning of the end, one that extends even to the cold, digital non-word of the title, over a photograph of storm-darkened Manhattan. It is, throughout, “unseasonably warm.”
Now thirty-three, the narrator has aged into financial success as an author — his first novel, like Lerner’s, released to surprise acclaim — and that familiar liberal-bourgeois political conscience that both recognizes and resists its bourgeois-ness. He participates in and loathes “Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism”; he gorges on baby octopus and Sancerre; he works a shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op and tutors a son of undocumented immigrants. Beneath it all though is an increasingly urgent feeling that his art can, or should be, some form of affirmation–an inkling of the political utopia hidden in its imperfections. Imagining a conversation with his potential child, the narrator encapsulates the distance traveled from Atocha to here:
“How are you going to pay for all this?” she asked me.
“On the strength of my New Yorker story. You’re over-focused on the money, Rose.” It was my maternal grandmother’s name.
“Is that why you’ve shifted from a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market to the fantasy of coeval readership?”
“Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.”
“Are you projecting your artistic ambition onto me?”
“So what if I am?”
“Why didn’t mom just adopt?”
From Adam’s arch proclamations on art’s rarefied position vis-à-vis current events (its “stylized despair”), Lerner has turned his attention to the social–how fiction, in particular, can contribute to shared meaning across race, class, genre, and time. His narrator has been diagnosed with a heart condition — there’s a shy double entendre there, if you’d like. He discusses his refusal to describe anyone’s face, and one gets the sense that this is a democratic as well as an aesthetic gesture — his friend Alex’s father, he eventually lets slip, is from Martinique, but there’s no suggestion of race. “Whatever it is,” Walt Whitman writes in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, “it avails not — distance avails not, and place avails not…I am with you, and know how it is.”
One has to admire the scope of Lerner’s ambition. To write a novel that’s constantly alert to its own written-ness, removed from its narrative by an awareness of itself as art but also obvious in its entanglements with the real, is feat enough without at the same time reaching for a Whitmanesque democracy of souls. He doesn’t always succeed — this very awareness can produce scenes that feel ponderous and bloated, and the way Lerner insists on writing “lacrimal events” instead of “tears” feels like a form of hedging, maintaining an ironic distance from the novel itself. Scientific and medical jargon proliferate rather blithely, taking the reader further into abstraction: there are “multifingered extremities” instead of “hands,” “passerines” instead of “pigeons,” and “an Andean chenopod” instead of “quinoa.” One gets the feeling that Lerner is flexing a bit at these times, throwing his intellect about merely because he can.
The novel’s prose is drawn from a small flotilla of registers, all of which — aside from such linguistic extravagance — it does absorb with ease. More than plot, the book’s five sections are comprised of discrete scenes and borrowed text: the short story, which Lerner did publish in the New Yorker; a university talk; an account of a writing residency in Marfa, Texas, that has more in common with Lerner’s first novel than it does with this one and incorporates a long, not very interesting poem; elements of an essay Lerner wrote for Harper’s on the Salvage Art Institute; an illustrated children’s book by the narrator’s tutee. Atocha itself is referred to, directly and indirectly, throughout.
If fiction, as William H. Gass once wrote, is in the business of creating a reality rather than reflecting one, the reality Lerner creates takes the form of collage, a collection of moments that, in combination and repetition, are recuperated by narrative almost accidentally. It’s like the phenomenon of pareidolia, he suggests: the brain’s tendency to make meaning even among randomness, seeing faces in the clouds. At one point, Alex and the protagonist view Christian Marclay’s The Clock — a twenty-four-hour video montage composed of found footage involving time, by means of which “fictional time [is] synchronized with nonfictional duration.” In its assemblage of “found” text, 10:04 too is written, as it were, in “real time,” both fiercely contemporary — global warming, iPhones, and Wikipedia articles as more than just set-dressing — and a form of time travel, fusing the now of the reading onto the now of the text. (In fact, the novel is titled after the moment at which lightning strikes the clock tower in Back to the Future, sending Marty McFly home to 1985 and saving the future by allowing a certain past not to have happened.)
10:04 often gives the sense of being composed as one reads it, beginning with an opening scene that makes note of the fact that it is to be the opener, and ending by choosing its own cover art. Tenses coexist — memories of the recent past, including events that never occurred, projections of possible futures, and memories of those projections. Time is compressed within strings of dialog, within artwork, in the interposition of scenes like series of moving tableaux. Fiction is like that lightning strike, maybe — a disaster that collapses time, by means of which possibility is released.
Everywhere, Lerner finds revelations yielded by this kind of sudden collapse: At one point, “the author” from the New Yorker story pauses in front of a gaslight in Brooklyn, and in his thoughts you hear more than an echo of Whitman on board that city’s ferry, some 112 years before:
It was as if the little flame in the gas lamp he paused before were burning at once in the present and in various pasts, in 2012 but also in 1912 or 1883, as if it were one flame flickering simultaneously in each of those times, connecting them. He felt that anyone who had ever paused before the lamp as he was pausing was briefly coeval with him, that they were all watching the same turbulent point in their respective present tenses.
There are moments when Lerner addresses a “you,” and this is Whitman’s “you” more than a specific dedicatee or reader. Which is to say that it’s a “you” that’s also an “I,” a self that is multiples. The “you” is the voice of the self thrown into the future, the self imagined looking forward from the past, the “collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed.” The goal is to “be on both sides of the poem,/ shuttling between you and I,” the simultaneous filling and emptying of self.
If art is anything it is this flickering, this “current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away”—between moment and narrative, between real and unreal, between the present and a host of alternate times, between particular and structural, actual and potential, you and I. That it can be all of that and all at once is the grand democratic dream: that, like Lerner’s novel, it can absorb and transform just about anything at all. In this it is a form of hope — what Whitman called “the certainty of others,” that they are there, and know how it is. And perhaps that is salvation enough.