10:04 by Ben Lerner
Topics covered: writing, the future, twilight sedation, fatherhood, fertility, fading out, in
I might be insane, but I feel like Jane Austen might have written this book. Had she been a poet. And a man. And had seen Back to the Future and the Challenger explosion as a child. And then grew up to an adulthood where she had go to a fertility clinic to masturbate into a cup. And think about whether or not she wanted to be a father. And does some cocaine and helps a guy come down from ketamine. All right, Lerner’s book isn’t much like Jane Austen at all, but it does navigate the social norms of contemporary relationships in a way that brings her books to mind.
10:04 also makes me think of the Japanese art of flower arrangement. What’s it called? Ikebana or something like that. I have no idea what an Ikebana arrangement looks like; I’ve only heard of the art. But the scenes in 10:04 feel as though Lerner arranged them deliberately for feeling. The novel opens with the narrator eating baby octopuses with his agent at a fancy restaurant. The octopuses are massaged to death! Ah! How awful. But how thrilling. The scene is repeated later in the book. It appears again, like how one purple lily would be placed on one side of a bouquet and then another placed in the middle. (And what an effect on the reader! To suddenly remember where one was and what one was doing while reading that opening passage—that memory too is placed in the arrangement.) There are other moments where the narrator’s memories run in, even just for a few sentences, to act like garland, to tie the whole book together.
Well, I say all of this because last night I read an essay about a movie by Ozu called The Only Son, which began with a description of Ikebana, and I have been reading Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Had I been reading other things, I would be talking about them now. If you believe certain physicists, there is another version of this review, written by another version of myself, who had just been reading WS Merwin and an essay on Maori tattoos in Jane Campion’s The Piano, and who lived on a blue and green planet like this one, but far away, and possibly compacted into another dimension.
And so on. Each minute we’re erasing potential versions of ourselves with what we choose to do. 10:04 is here because Ben Lerner watched Back to the Future as a child and sold a story to The New Yorker. The book is aware of this. The narrator is Ben Lerner but he isn’t Ben Lerner. Events shift, then shift again. His friend has her wisdom teeth taken out. In the New Yorker story, which is enclosed in the novel, it’s the narrator/writer who has them taken out. In the book the writer has Marfan syndrome. In the New Yorker, he has a tumor. In real life—who can say, except maybe Ben Lerner.
It’s all fascinating, but also kind of boring. The narrator is a writer in New York. Yes, that again! There are moments that transcend the situation, like where he has a conversation with his as-of-yet unborn but teenaged daughter, or when he’s feels as though he’s becoming an octopus after eating a plateful of baby ones. But there is a whole section where he is writing poems at a residency in Marfa, Texas (where he acquired Marfan syndrome?). It tests one’s patience.
There’s so much more to talk about: Ben Lerner’s eyebrows, his novel Leaving the Atocha Station, the trend of novels whose main characters share names/identities with their writers, et cetera. All of those topics can be found in the other versions of this essay which are bound up in other dimensions.