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by Ben Lerner


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A stunning, urgent, and original novel from Ben Lerner (The Topeka School and Leaving the Atocha Station) about making art, love, and children during the twilight of an empire.

Winner of The Paris Review's 2012 Terry Southern Prize

A Finalist for the 2014 Folio Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award

In the last year, the narrator of 10:04 has enjoyed unlikely literary success, has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal medical condition, and has been asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child. In a New York of increasingly frequent superstorms and social unrest, he must reckon with his own mortality and the prospect of fatherhood in a city that might soon be underwater.

A writer whose work Jonathan Franzen has called "hilarious . . . cracklingly intelligent . . . and original in every sentence," Lerner captures what it's like to be alive now when the difficulty of imagining a future is changing our relationship to both the present and the past.

Named One of the Best Books of the Year By:
The New Yorker The New York Times Book Review The Wall Street Journal The Village Voice The Boston Globe NPR Vanity Fair The Guardian (London) The L Magazine The Times Literary Supplement (London) The Globe and Mail (Toronto) The Huffington Post Gawker Flavorwire San Francisco Chronicle The Kansas City Star The Jewish Daily Forward Tin House

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250081339
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 169,348
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ben Lerner was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1979. He has been a Fulbright Fellow, a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, a Howard Foundation Fellow, and a Guggenheim Fellow. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, won the 2012 Believer Book Award, and excerpts from 10:04 have been awarded The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Read an Excerpt


a Novel

By Ben Lerner

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Ben Lerner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-810-7


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 amphitheater 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. I was saying these things out loud to the agent, who was inhaling and exhaling smoke, and we were laughing.

A few months before, the agent had e-mailed 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. "How exactly will you expand the story?" she'd asked, far look in her eyes because she was calculating tip.

"I'll project myself into several futures simultaneously," I should have said, "a minor tremor in my hand; I'll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid."

* * *

A giant octopus was painted on the wall of the room where I'd been sent the previous September for evaluation — an octopus and starfish and various gill-bearing aquatic craniate animals — for this was the pediatric wing and the sea scene was intended to calm and distract the children from needles or the small hammers testing reflex amplitude. I was there at the age of thirty-three because a doctor had discovered incidentally an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurysmal dilation of my aortic root that required close monitoring and probable surgical intervention and the most common explanation of such a condition at such an age is Marfan, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that typically produces the long-limbed and flexible. When I met with a cardiologist and he suggested the evaluation I'd noted my excess proportion of body fat and conventional arm span and only slightly above average height, but he counter-noted my long, thin toes and mild double- jointedness and contended that I might well fall on the diagnostic spectrum. Most Marfanoids are diagnosed in early childhood, thus the pediatric wing.

If I had Marfan, the cardiologist had explained, the threshold of surgical intervention was lower (when the diameter of the aortic root reached 4.5 centimeters), was basically nigh (I was at 4.2 centimeters according to an MRI), because the likelihood of what they call "dissection," a most often fatal tearing of the aorta, is higher among Marfanoids; if I did not have an underlying genetic condition, if my aorta was deemed idiopathic, I would still probably require eventual surgery, but with a more distant threshold (5 centimeters), and the possibility of much slower progression. In either case, I was now burdened with the awareness that there was a statistically significant chance the largest artery in my body would rupture at any moment — an event I visualized, however incorrectly, as a whipping hose spraying blood into my blood; before collapse a far look comes into my eyes as though, etc.

There I was at Mount Sinai Hospital underwater in a red plastic chair designed for a kindergartner, a chair that had the immediate effect of making me feel ungainly, gangly in my paper gown, and thus confirming the disorder before the team of evaluators arrived. Alex, who had accompanied me for what she called moral support but was in fact practical support, as I had proved unable to leave a doctor's office with even the most basic recollection of whatever information had been imparted to me there, sat across from me in the lone adult chair, no doubt placed there for a parent, notebook open in her lap.

I'd been told in advance that the evaluation would be conducted by a trio of doctors that would then consult and offer its opinion, which I thought of as a verdict, but there were two things about the doctors now entering with bright smiles that I was not prepared for: they were beautiful and they were younger than I. It was fortunate Alex was present because she would not have otherwise believed me that the doctors — all of whom appeared to be originally from subcontinental Asia — were themselves ideally proportioned in their white coats, with flawlessly symmetrical, high-boned faces that, no doubt through some deft application of shadow and gloss, glowed with almost parodic health even in hospital light, a dusky gold. I looked at Alex, who raised her eyebrows back at me.

They asked me to stand and proceeded to calculate the length of my arms and the curvature of my chest and spine and the arch of my feet, to perform so many measurements according to a nosological program mysterious to me that I felt as if my limbs had multiplied. That they were younger than I constituted an unfortunate milestone beyond which medical science could no longer stand in benevolent paternal relation to my body because such doctors would now see in my pathologized corpus their own future decline and not their past immaturity. And yet in this room outfitted for children I was simultaneously infantilized by three improbably attractive women in their mid- to late twenties while from the more than literal distance of her chair Alex looked on sympathetically.

It can taste what it touches, but has poor proprioception, the brain unable to determine the position of its body in the current, particularly my arms, and the privileging of flexibility over proprioceptive inputs means it lacks stereognosis, the capacity to form a mental image of the overall shape of what I touch: it can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate that information into a larger picture, cannot read the realistic fiction the world appears to be. What I mean is that my parts were coming to possess a terrible neurological autonomy not only spatial but temporal, my future collapsing in upon me as each contraction expanded, however infinitesimally, the overly flexible tubing of my heart. Including myself, I was older and younger than everyone in the room.

* * *

Her support was moral and practical but also self-interested in that Alex had recently proposed impregnating herself with my sperm, not, she was at immediate pains to make clear, in copula, but rather through intrauterine insemination because, as she put it, "fucking you would be bizarre." The subject was broached at the Metropolitan Museum, which we often visited weekday afternoons, since Alex was unemployed, and I, a writer.

We had met each other in my freshman and her senior year of college in a dull class about great novels and felt an instant and mutual sympathy, but had not become best friends until we found ourselves almost neighbors in Brooklyn when I moved there a few years after graduation and we began our walks — walks through Prospect Park as light died in the lindens; walks from our neighborhood of Boerum Hill to Sunset Park, where we would watch the soft-winged kites at magic hour; nocturnal walks along the promenade with the looming intensities of Manhattan glittering across dark water. Six years of these walks on a warming planet, although walking wasn't all we did, had rendered Alex's presence inseparable from my sense of moving through the city, so that I intuited her beside me when she wasn't; when I crossed a bridge in silence, I often felt it was silence shared between us, even if she was visiting her parents upstate or spending time with a boyfriend, whom I could be counted on to hate.

Maybe she broached the subject at the museum and not over coffee or the like because in the galleries as on our walks our gazes were parallel, directed in front of us at canvas and not at each other, a condition of our most intimate exchanges; we would work out our views as we coconstructed the literal view before us. We did not avoid each other's eyes and I admired the overcast-sky quality of hers, dark epithelium and clear stroma, but we tended to fall quiet when they met. Which meant we'd eat a lunch in silence or idle talk, only for me to learn on the subsequent walk home that her mother had been diagnosed in a late stage. You might have seen us walking on Atlantic, tears streaming down her face, my arm around her shoulders, but our gazes straight ahead; or perhaps you've seen me during one of my own increasingly frequent lacrimal events being comforted in kind while we moved across the Brooklyn Bridge, less a couple than conjoined.

That day we were standing before Jules Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc — Alex looks a little like this version of her — and she said, apropos of nothing: "I'm thirty-six and single." (Thank god she had broken up with her latest, a divorced labor lawyer in his late forties who had done some work for the health clinic she'd codirected before it folded. After two glasses of wine, he invariably began regaling everyone within earshot with stories about his time undertaking suspiciously vague humanitarian labor in Guatemala; after three glasses of wine, the lawyer started in on his ex-wife's sexual repression and general frigidity; after four or five, he began to interweave these incommensurate discourses, so that genocide and his feelings of sexual rejection achieved implied equivalence within his slurred speech. Whenever I was around, I made certain his glass was full, hastening the relationship's demise.) "Not a day has gone by in the last six years when I haven't wanted a kid. I'm that cliché. I want my mom to meet my child. I have seventy-five weeks of unemployment benefits and insurance plus modest savings, and while I know that means I should be more afraid to reproduce than ever, what it actually makes me feel is that there will never be a good time, that I can't wait for professional and biological rhythms to coincide. We're best friends. You can't live without me. What if you donate the sperm? We could work out your level of involvement. I know it's crazy and I want you to say yes."

Three translucent angels hover in the top left of the painting. They have just summoned Joan, who has been working at a loom in her parents' garden, to rescue France. One angel holds her head in her hands. Joan appears to stagger toward the viewer, reaching her left arm out, maybe for support, in the swoon of being called. Instead of grasping branches or leaves, her hand, which is carefully positioned on the sight line of one of the other angels, seems to dissolve. The museum placard says that Bastien-Lepage was attacked for his failure to reconcile the ethereality of the angels with the realism of the future saint's body, but that "failure" is what makes it one of my favorite paintings. It's as if the tension between the metaphysical and physical worlds, between two orders of temporality, produces a glitch in the pictorial matrix; the background swallows her fingers. Standing there that afternoon with Alex, I was reminded of the photograph Marty carries in Back to the Future, crucial movie of my youth: as Marty's time-traveling disrupts the prehistory of his family, he and his siblings begin to fade from the snapshot. Only here it's a presence, not an absence, that eats away at her hand: she's being pulled into the future.

* * *

We were coconstructing a shoe-box diorama to accompany the book Roberto and I planned to self-publish about the scientific confusion regarding the brontosaurus: in the nineteenth century a paleontologist put the skull of a camarasaurus on an apatosaurus skeleton and believed he'd discovered a new species, so that one of the two iconic dinosaurs of my youth turns out not to have existed, a revision that, along with the demotion of Pluto from planet to plutoid, retrospectively struck hard at my childhood worldview, my remembered sense of both galactic space and geological time. Roberto was an eight-year-old in my friend Aaron's third-grade class at a dual-language school in Sunset Park. I had asked Aaron if there was some way I could be of use to one of his charges while also smuggling in occasional Spanish practice. Roberto was intelligent and sociable, but even more susceptible to distraction than the average child, and Aaron thought our working on a series of projects after school might trick him into, or at least model for him, modes of concentration. I had no official permission to be in the school, although Aaron had asked Roberto's mom — emphasizing that I was a published author — if she was comfortable with the prospect, and she was.

During our first session, Roberto had a nut-related allergic reaction to the granola bars I'd brought but failed to clear with Aaron and, as the boy crimsoned and wheezed, smiling all the while, I was seized with animal terror; I imagined having to open his windpipe with a pencil. Luckily, Aaron returned from his meeting in an adjacent classroom and calmed me down, explaining Roberto's allergy was minor and the reaction would soon pass, but that I should be careful in the future; he didn't know I was bringing a snack. The third or fourth week of tutoring, when Aaron was again out of the room, Roberto, without warning, mutinied, informing me he was going to find his friends and, since I wasn't his teacher, I couldn't stop him. He bolted down the hall and I walked quickly after him, cheeks burning with an embarrassment I feared any adult witnesses would confuse for a species of lechery. I eventually located him in the corner of the gym that was also the cafeteria, in a small circle of his classmates that had formed around a truly gargantuan water bug carcass, and I lured Roberto back to the classroom only by promising I'd let him play with my iPhone.

By now, the third month of tutoring, we were close friends: for snack I brought fresh fruit he never ate and Aaron had had Roberto's mom threaten the child about disobeying me. In the initial aftermath of my diagnosis, when every few minutes I believed I was dissecting, the time I spent trying to coax Roberto into focusing on the mythology of the kraken or recently discovered prehistoric shark remains was the only time in which I was myself distracted from the potentially fatal swelling at my sinus of Valsalva.

Thus only a few days after the Marfan evaluation I was again in a child-sized chair, cutting out with those awkward elementary school scissors various dinosaurs we'd printed off the Internet onto construction paper to serve as prey or companion for the apatosaurus in the diorama, no doubt anachronistically, as we hadn't the patience to determine which dinosaurs corresponded to what geological period, when Roberto returned to a subject that had entered his dreams since he'd watched a show on the Discovery Channel about the advent of a second ice age.

"When all the skyscrapers freeze they're going to fall down like September eleventh," he said in his typically cheerful tone, but more quietly, "and crush everyone." Roberto tended to modulate not tone but volume to indicate gravity and emotion.

"Maybe if it started getting really cold the scientists would figure out a new heating system for the buildings," I said.

"But global warming," he said, smiling and showing the gap where he was awaiting a mature incisor, but almost whispering, a sign of genuine fear.

"I don't think there will be another ice age," I lied, cutting out another extinct animal.

"You don't believe in global warming?" he asked.

I paused. "I don't think buildings are going to fall on anybody," I said. "Did you have another dream?"


Excerpted from 10:04 by Ben Lerner. Copyright © 2014 Ben Lerner. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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