19 December 2019

10:04 by Ben Lerner


I asked for Ben Lerner's 10:04 last year for Christmas after Jonathan Franzen had recommended it. Franzen is one of my favourite fiction writers and I'm always jotting down books I've heard he's mentioned in an interview. He was the one who brought me to Paula Fox's Desperate Characters which I've read multiple times and love. So I finally got around to picking up 10:04 on Franzen's recommendation.

Lerner's book is set in New York and follows a youngish author who is hot off a large book advance but is struggling with two major obstacles: his aorta is starting to close off and could result in his early death, and his best friend wants to borrow his sperm so she can have a baby. The narrative is mostly made up of the central character worrying (naturally so) about the diameter growing and clogging his blood flow, as well as wondering whether or not he could be a father, even if his involvement would be at a minimum.

If you want to pick out the devastated or soon-to-be-devastated from the stream of people leaving Mount Sinai, I decided, don't look for frank expressions of sorrow or concern, look for people whose faces resemble those of passengers deplaning after a long flight - a blank expression as the body begins adjusting to a new time zone and ground speed." 

He's not a necessarily likeable guy, but who wouldn't be self-involved when you have these two smoking guns pointed at you. I can see why Franzen would like the narrator, as he often writes unlikable leads himself. The main character is full of dry wit and spends most of his downtime picking apart other people's decisions. I love him.

All over the world people were tending their children ingeniously in the midst of surpassing extremities, seeing them through tsunamis and civil wars, shielding them from American drones, but I was at a total loss as to how one could both be responsible for a child at a museum and empty one's bladder." 

My selection for my Ontario work trip

Like Franzen, and Lerner (who is the actual author I know, I know), the main character is a successful author. A lot of his interactions with those around him involves him wondering if he could rip off other people's personal stories and put them in his work. He is constantly wondering if they would be pissed, even if he changed around a few details. What I loved about this was that there are multiple stories within 10:04 that really have nothing to do with the central plot. A lot of this book is about how fiction and storytelling interact with our day-to-day.

One of my favourite stories was from a woman he was working beside at a grocery co-op. She tells him how she grew up believing herself to be half Lebanese. That it was a massive part of of her identity and how it was worked into her belief system, volunteer activities, what she studied in school, etc. Then one day her mother tells her her now-deceased father was not her biological father. That she has no real connection to Lebanon. The storyteller tells our main character that she looked in the mirror and literally thought her skin looked whiter.

This story has no real place in the overall narrative, but I found myself being most engrossed with the book when I was reading these little snippets from other people's lives. Storytelling is a huge part of this book, and the author is constantly grappling with his new work. You can tell he's an author even through the way Lerner writes him as a narrator. The way he observes everyone around him reminds you of his profession:


'Oh come on,' I said, referring to her cumulative, impossible cool, and she snorted a little when she laughed, then coughed smoke, becoming real." 

Ben Lerner
I also loved how Lerner addresses storytelling, and how intimate it is regardless of whether it's coming from someone you barely know or someone you know very well. The character and his closest friend Alex (the woman requesting his sperm) only feel able to be vulnerable together while on long walks. He mentions early on in the book how they would sit silently eating dinner together when face-to-face, but would share private, raw stories while walking. How Alex couldn't talk about her dying mother unless their gazes were parallel to one another, looking out at their shared horizon:

I opted to say something vague about the connection between storytelling and manual labor, how the latter facilitates the former, the work creating a shared perceptual pattern [...]"

I know most readers of fiction are interested in how much of the author is in the character. Franzen wrote about this in one of my favourite essays "On Autobiographical Fiction" and Lerner sort of leans into it in 10:04 when his main character goes out on a date.


Even if these questions weren't posed explicitly, he could see, or thought he saw, his interlocutor testing whatever he said and did against the text. And because his narrator was characterized above all by his anxiety regarding the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation, the more intensely the author worried about distinguishing himself from the narrator, the more he felt he had become him." 

Overall, I didn't love this book. There were elements I really enjoyed, like when peripheral characters shared their weird, personal anecdotes, but in the end I wouldn't recommend 10:04 to many. I certainly didn't hate the book, it just isn't something I can see myself picking back up. I liked what Lerner was trying to show about storytelling but that's pretty much it. Like I said, I wouldn't recommend to many, but I would be happy to read another of Lerner's books.

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