Last year in Madrid I spotted a copy of Leaving the Atocha Station in a bookshop only metres from said station and thought about buying it then got distracted. Much talked about on publication, it’s Ben Lerner’s first novel – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance probably, as his agent tells him, because his new publishers are looking for a bit of cachet. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. If your literary pretentiousness alarm is ringing loudly you may be thinking of moving on but despite any tricksy clever-cleverness that introduction suggests Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and, well, very clever.
10:04 opens with our narrator lunching with his agent at a restaurant so devoted to the pursuit of gourmet experience that their speciality is baby octopi gently massaged to death before landing on their well-heeled diners’ plates. It’s a dish which will trouble the narrator’s conscience, researching as he has the habits of octopi and their complicated play together. It’s a celebration – the narrator’s second novel has just won that large advance but before you get this far best take note of the Hasidic story prefacing the opening chapter which tells the reader that in ‘the world to come… everything will be just as it is here’. So it is in Lerner’s novel, except that many alternate versions of the narrator’s world – each slight, almost infinitesimal variants on each other – will be explored along the way. Our narrator finds he has a heart condition, publishes the short story that will help win him his advance, agrees to father his best friend’s child, mentors a seven-year-old with a passion for dinosaurs, avoids writing his novel during his five-week writing residency – all the time listening to his friends’ stories, reshaping them and trying them on for size. This is a book about writing, as much as it’s about anything.
Lerner’s style is so wonderfully discursive it sets your head spinning. He weaves stories throughout, includes the full text of that short story, throws in a few illustrations, adds the text of the four-page book on dinosaurs he produces for Roberto, while wandering backwards and forwards through time. There are many recurrent themes, from the 1986 Challenger spacecraft disaster to the Hollywood movie Back to the Future, frequently referenced and then watched during both storms, another theme. Clearly, the Ben of 10:04 isn’t Ben Lerner but there’s such a lot of him in there – teaching poetry at a university, published poetry collections, that much talked about debut – coupled with his alter ego’s constant demonstration of the writer’s ability to shift, modify and incorporate the stories he hears that you find yourself wondering if an epiphany really did hit him at the 10:04 moment while watching Christian Marclay’s The Clock; if he really did reject the idea and wrote instead ‘the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them’.
There are two ways to approach 10:04, I think. You can either tease out all the many interconnections, the multitude of shifts and changes, and painstakingly piece them together or you can think ‘what the hell’ and simply go along for the ride. I decided on the latter but may well go back and read it again taking the former.