10:04/10:05

Print Friendly

"I am looking back at the city in the second person plural," Ben Lerner's narrator Ben says in the final paragraph of 10:04. "I know it's hard to understand/ I am with you, and I know how it is." (240) A sentence earlier, Ben preemptively announces the end of his utopian insight. He will, he says, soon fall back into the third person singular: so far away from this imagined urban community that even his own body will become a “he.”

Lerner's novel considers such aftermaths of our revelations. It studies the residue our bodily and mental experiences leave in their wake. As many of his reviewers have noted, 10:04 belongs to a growing number of recent films, series, and novels that take up the genre of autobiography: a wave that includes Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Richard Linklater's Boyhood and Girls by Lena Dunham. With these authors, Lerner takes part in an ongoing cultural turn toward personal writing as a generic bridge between print culture and online culture, between literary, occasional, and critical rhetoric. In the process, Lerner attempts not just to imitate the personal essay, but also to change it. In 10:04, his protagonist finds himself forcibly pulled into a future in which he is unprepared to acknowledge he will play a role.  Establishing some relation to such future echoes of one's presence is, for Lerner, a form not only of time travel but also of generic travel: it is a new challenge and goal for writing about oneself.

10:04 reads like a semi-fictional personal essay or scrapbook. Its protagonist, Ben, records the process of drafting the novel we are reading. He narrates his life during this writing process, occasionally inserting extra "documents" such as a short early version of this novel that he publishes in The New Yorker, or a picture book he makes with a middle school student. Lerner's narrative is not explicitly autobiographical, but it constantly invites the reader to suppose it might be. For instance, the story Ben publishes in The New Yorker is, word for word, the story Lerner published there. When Ben describes his unnamed first novel, the details he mentions invoke those of Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (2011).

When the novel begins, Ben's future has just flown wide open. Eating a dish of tiny octopi that were, as he puts it, "literally massaged to death," he is overwhelmed by his opportunities. His first novel was an unexpected success. Now he is fêted by publishers eager to give him a six-figure advance on the next one.

As he drafts his proposal, and then the second book itself, he finds himself confronted with other dimensions of his futurephysical, social, familial, romantic, and planetaryall of which come to seem more immediate and more precarious than before. First, he is diagnosed with an aortic condition that might, at some unpredictable rate and rhythm, dilate this artery to the point of bursting:

I was now burdened with the awareness that there was a statistically significant chance the largest artery in my body would rupture at any momentan 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. (5)

Shortly thereafter, his platonic best friend Alex asks him to be the sperm donor for her IUI. They begin awkward negotiations about how the insemination should take place. ("As she put it, 'fucking you would be bizarre.'" [7]). In the meantime, he occasionally meets with struggling younger poets who are having nervous breakdowns. He tutors Roberto, a Spanish eight-year-old from an inner-city school whom he's not convinced he's helping. He gets involved in an on-and-off affair with a woman named Alena. In the larger social background around him, the Occupy movement sweeps through New York City. Some of his friends become jobless and the prosperity of others gets shakier. These events are bookended by two tropical-scale hurricanes most likely caused by global warming.

Ben blunders through the various personal and large-scale changes in ways that seem undirected and messy. Unsure of what he wantsand surrounded by people who are similarly unsurehe lets his roles within their lives remain unspecified. Many early reviewers have commented on this open-endedness of Ben's interweaving personal and planetary plot strands. It seems that we are invited to consider his life as a potentiality of many narratives and options. That assessment is not untrue, but it misses perhaps the most original feature of Lerner's engagement with his narrator's many unraveling fates. For Ben, this impending future is not uncanny simply because it is as yet indeterminate. It is uncanny because traces of his current presence will persist within it, in ways he cannot fully control or direct. His experiences continue to accumulate into a sum of dependencies and impacts on others. These experiences cannot be lifted out of the wider social and material contexts on which they feed and amid which their echoes will continue to persist.

10:04 takes its title from Back to the Futurebut also from Christian Marclay's twenty-four-hour film called The Clock, which pastes together images of clocks from across world cinema. Out of these images, The Clock creates an uncannily seamless representation of the passage of time. Lerner makes us see his narratorboth as a writer and as a personin these scraps of recorded experience that one might never have expected to survive, or to be folded together so seamlessly. Lerner's emphasis on these future echoes or re-uses of his narrator's life does not, of course, deny the impermanence of his mind and body. In Ben's various ailments, and in the economic and ecological crises around him, this sense of precariousness is ever-present. But Lerner focuses on our constant production of some subjective residueeven in experiences that we might think of as ethereal or introspectiveas a dimension of first-person experience to which we might not devote as much attention as we ought to. Ben watches Marty McFly's body fade, but not quite disappear; he visits his girlfriend Alena's destroyed artwork museum. These images and artifacts remind him not just of the fragility of his daily life, but also of the uncanny longevity of its ruins. A hundred years ago, it would have been a challenge to come to terms with the fragility of our bodies and the experiences that accumulate within them. In our day and age, it might be just as challenging to take stock of the many versions or echoes of our presence that persist beyond their initial moment.

While large and small changes happen to him and around him, Ben collects imagined and material models for the future residue he might leave in his world. Several of these models stem from highbrow modernism, whose emphases Ben pointedly re-inflects. Quoting the famous passage about the angel of history from Walter Benjamin's "Theses," he omits Benjamin's descriptions of the angel's messianic relationship to the past. Instead, he highlights the disorientation with which "the storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned" (25). This omission registers, among others, a crisis of belief in any individual's consciousnesseven the consciousness of the writeras a precious source of knowledge about a past that would otherwise be forgotten. Ben represents himself as a mind and body that even his surrounding calamities, such as the literal storm he hides from, continue to preserve and to perpetuate more than he had expected. He depicts his past and present as easily able to survive beside and beyond him, in a way that his acts of memory or of creativity merely echo.

In a way that echoes the plot of Back to the Future, Ben also conceptualizes this impending future in relation to a dual reproductive failure: on the one hand, to find one's parents, and on the other, to become a parent oneself. Throughout this novel, Ben is the only potential father figure on the horizon. He is usually surrounded by women and children, or by men considerably younger than himself. His male mentors are dead or dying, or else, as with his therapist, he has to pay for them. Ben tries hard to fulfill the duties apparently cast upon himto Alex's future child, to his creative writing students, to Roberto. Yet amid all these efforts he begins to see himself less as a father than as a parasitic child of the present. At the fertility clinic, the women who examine himand by whom he feels "infantilized"decide that his sperm will not be sufficient for the IUI without additional reinforcement. (6) His lovers feed him, his publishers are making him rich at a time when many people around him are becoming homeless, even though he has not as yet written a word. As a writer, Ben is haunted by analogous fears of preying on, or merely doubling, lives and experiences that will exist around him whether or not he is there to record them. Perhaps he is not creating anything those he loves did not have before, or safekeeping anything someone might otherwise lose. Indeed, maybe in representing his experiences as a fictionalized past, he is reducing, rather than reinforcing, their realityrunning away from his potential obligation to engage with them in real life.

These reckonings reach their apex when Alex confronts Ben about having used an intimate moment between them in "The Golden Vanities," the short story that gets him a six-figure advance for his new novel:

"If we're going to try to make a baby, however we try to make one, I don't want it to be one of the things you get to deny you wanted or deny ever happened.”

"What do you mean?”

"'It was the only kind of first date he could bring himself to go on, the kind you could deny after the fact had been a date at all.'"

"That's fiction and we're not talking about a first date."

"What about the part about smoothing my hair in the cab? The part that's based on the night of the storm. The alcohol is a way of hedging. So that whatever happens only kind of happened." (136)

Alex does not see herself as immortalized in Ben's story. Instead she sees this story as an act of indiscretion or appropriation. She also treats it as Ben's attempt to sever the connection between his choices and their potential long-term effects. He has reduced the vague sexual tension between them from an ongoing presence in their livesa presence that they have to reckon with, time and again, in changing guisesto the hazy phenomenology of a single, fictional, drunken moment. At its most cynical, 10:04 makes such confessional self-expression seem like an expiatory ritual. We tell versions of our lives to others in order that they may forgive our impact on them; we tell these lives in an attempt to make our experiences seem lighter and more detachable from the reality they build for ourselves and for others. At the height of this cynicism, Marty McFly from Back to the Future starts to seem like a comic doppelganger of Benjamin's angel of history. Their growing resemblance in Ben's mind reflects his fear that his preoccupation with the future is, perhaps, merely a form of narcissism.

But in Lerner's prose there is also some hope of catching glimpses of these larger social entities and timescales: if not of speaking for them, then at least of speaking from within them, in a way that might reflect a heightened awareness of their complexity and magnitude. Towards its end, Lerner's novel becomes an experiment in how autobiographical rhetoric could modify the temporal frameworks within which we represent ourselves to ourselves. The formal progression of 10:04which starts with Benjamin and intense, anxious introspection, and ends in increasingly future-oriented modes of narration and attentivenessdramatizes this future-oriented mode of representation as its new aim and emphasis, one which might bring a new set of questions and goals to the project of writing about the self. In these later parts of the novel, among others, Ben engages in imaginary conversations with the child he will have with Alex. In this celebratory, culminating passagewhich comes shortly before the final revelation with which this review beganhe lifts his narration entirely from the present into the future tense:

We will stop to get something to eat at a sushi restaurant in Prospect Heightsjust vegetable rolls, as Alex is pregnant and the seas are poisoned and the superstorm has shut down all the ports. A couple beside us will debate the relative merits of condos and co-ops. (240)

Narrating the future in impossibly vivid detail, Ben challenges himself to inhabit it as intuitively as possible. The dubious mastery he has over these imagined details makes the process of writing seem less grounded in reality, but thereby perhaps less parasitically attached to it. Rather than reproduce the past and present, he inscribes himself into the continuities he imagines this succession of moments to be creating: continuities that he does not control but also cannot, at least for the time being, prevent himself from being present for.

Writing one's way toward and into the grammatical future tense seems more like a metaphor for Ben's desired kind of awareness, than like an actual claim of glimpsing it. Yet this parting gesture also conveys some optimism about the possibility of reaching a less narrowly immediate attitude toward oneself and others. In a way that this half-utopian, half-ironic ending well encapsulates, 10:04 is both a critique of its own limited temporal horizons and an expression of joy at having recognized these limits of one's immediate spheres of care. Thinking about the future makes one's ongoing first-person experience seem less momentous and meaningful. But it also lets one discern forms of one's agency and involvement that an excessive focus on these immediate thoughts and feelings previously obscured; forms of agency and involvement Ben is ultimately (or so he hopes) relieved to discover can be neither refused nor undone by his obsessive self-regard.

 Marta Figlerowicz is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale, and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

 

Works Cited:

Lerner, Ben. 10:04. New York: Faber and Faber, 2014.