10:04 by Ben Lerner. Faber & Faber. 256 pp. $25.00.
The Problem of Being an Ideal Reader
“It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but a flickering between them”—but even if this narrator is only a simulacrum, his observation most likely is true. At the time Ben Lerner’s story was published, The New Yorker had a circulation of just over one million, while Leaving the Atocha Station, if we are to believe the fairly honest narrator of 10:04, had only sold about ten thousand copies.
This is a fact Lerner deploys with brilliant ferocity in 10:04. It does not matter if his readers have read Leaving the Atocha Station—only that they know of its reputation. But that New Yorker story, “The Golden Vanity,” matters. I read it a week or so after its publication. I was scheduled to have my wisdom teeth taken out a few months later, so to read the story, which includes a philosophical debate over the kind of anesthetic to take, and which was set in the city I was starting to make my home, felt oddly appropriate. I forgot it after a while, as I do most stories, with only a few fragments sticking in my head.
10:04 felt equally familiar to me from its opening pages: “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 . . . among the dimly gleaming disused rails and carefully placed stands of sumac and smoke bush.” This is the High Line, precisely where I read those words one surprisingly temperate afternoon in August.
“I’m Updike’s ideal reader, and John Cheever’s,” Joyce Carol Oates once declared in an interview. She immediately set her listener at ease: “I don’t mean that presumptuously. Only that whatever they write I read immediately, and I read it again two or three times.” It seems that I have, quite by accident and without any real intention, similarly become one of Ben Lerner’s ideal readers. Doubtless there are many others who are more keenly attuned to his words than I am. But his sentences and his articles and his entire books have snaked their way into my consciousness, in a way that is only possible because the life I lead bears so much resemblance to his own, and because nearly every word of his ever since Leaving the Atocha Station—from his review in The London Review of Books of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s similarly autobiographical project to his discussion of the Salvage Art Institute in Harper’s—has somehow ended up in my reading pile.
And it was for that reason, I thought, that certain elements started to sound familiar as I read the first section of 10:04. There are walks in the park, similarly philosophical conversations with an intelligent but unemployed friend. Wisdom teeth again—at that point I wanted to track down the old New Yorker story—and yet not everything was the same. The character names, I was sure, were different. And I thought it had been the narrator getting his wisdom teeth extracted, but here in 10:04, it was someone else. I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease—and complicity.
Even the epigraph for 10:04 alludes to this slight instability: “The Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here . . . Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” It is a motif that Lerner repeatedly deploys and exploits in his novel. 10:04 itself purports to be a slightly different version, thematically, of Leaving the Atocha Station: “I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity,” the narrator tells (or, more precisely, should have told) his agent as they discuss the book proposal that, on the strength of his first novel and his short story, will get him a six-figure advance. Throughout the story are images of its making—discussions with Lerner’s agent (who I’ve corresponded with); a residency in Marfa, Texas, featuring an extremely funny scene of several people taking drugs; a series of other stories that inform the narrator’s own work . . .
But all that comes later. As I was reading the first section, trying to figure out if this was an expanded version of the story I had read in The New Yorker, I had a growing feeling of unease: what exactly was Ben Lerner doing with the reality of the past?
And then, in a flash, in four pages, everything happened. “The story would involve a series of transpositions: I would shift my medical problem . . . Alex would become Liza . . . The story came quickly, almost alarmingly so.” And my unease grew just as quickly: was Ben Lerner really telling me how his reality became transmuted into this fiction? The remaining pages of that first section hurtled so quickly into reality that it felt like a trapdoor being sawed around me, the metal teeth nearing their terminus—and as it became clear how much was fact was in this purported work of fiction; I felt like the trapdoor had been cut and opened, like I was falling.
The experience of already knowing Ben Lerner’s references—the High Line, Hurricane Sandy, Christian Marclay’s The Clock (from which the book draws its title, highlighting the moment at which a bolt of lightning hits the clock tower in Back to the Future)—had reached a fever pitch as I connected what I had read of and about Ben Lerner with the part of his life he described. Seeing how the narrator reshaped and reformed the story, both for literary value and for the almighty dollar, was a behind-the-scenes glimpse that in its apparent directness violated a fundamental sense of propriety about the divide between reality and fiction, between life and art. The mirror had been transformed into an X-Acto knife, a surgical apparatus dissecting the fiction in the very moment of its making.
Would I feel this shock and astonishment if I was not an Oatesian ideal reader? This is a question more commonly asked in reference to romans à clef: one presumes that most of their energy and excitement come from the reader’s realizations of who these characters actually represent. There are notable exceptions—Proust’s Recherche being perhaps the greatest—but if Candide must be read today, 255 years after its original publication, with footnotes nearly as voluminous as the original text, one shudders to imagine a version of Primary Colors or How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life or, yes, Leaving the Atocha Station published in the year 2269, each reference to Susan Stanton or the Katharine Mulherin Gallery or even the Madrid train bombing at the Atocha railway station carefully explained for readers living in what might well be a completely different world.
But perhaps this is not really a problem, per se. Perhaps I am only worrying about the possibility of sharing a specific, individual experience of 10:04 with other readers who have wholly different and unique experiences of their own. In his brilliant review of Ben Lerner’s poetry collection Mean Free Path, David Gorin highlights the poems’ disjointedness as a literary strategy: “Each time we choose a way to read the poem, we stumble into difficulties that suggest our choice was merely one option among others . . . The brilliance and excitement of this work isn’t simply that there are many interesting ways to read it—all good art does that—but that to read it one way forces your eyes open to others.” And Tao Lin, who is acknowledged at the end of 10:04 and likely even more an ideal reader of Ben Lerner than I am, introduces an interview in The Believer by describing “Ben’s oeuvre [as] a single work that is already completed and is being released in parts.” So perhaps I am not simply an “ideal reader” in a paradigmatic sense—only one of many different varieties of ideal readers.
Again and again Ben Lerner’s narrator comes back to Whitman and, indirectly, the Whitmanian attempt to transcend individuality. Specimen Days fails, the narrator decides, because “many of his memories are general enough to be anyone’s memory . . . Just as in the poems, he has to be nobody in particular in order to be a democratic everyman.” If 10:04 is Lerner’s attempt to invent a new answer to Whitman’s particular conundrum, he has succeeded brilliantly. His narrative is peppered with many references and allusions that include rather than exclude the reader—one particularly unexpected section carefully explains how the narrator’s poetic antecessor may be Peggy Noonan, who gave shape to a president’s message the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.
“I’ll project myself into multiple futures simultaneously,” Lerner’s narrator writes in the book’s first few pages—but he does more, much more. He brings about a minor miracle of projecting the reader into multiple pasts and futures. He underwrites and overwrites our own memories, turning us into real-life counterparts of a page depicting Joan of Arc’s hand fading in a painting and Michael J. Fox’s hand fading in a movie. He turns us as readers into multiple versions of ourselves with Whitmanian generosity. There is a hint of that individual touch when Lerner writes, near the end of 10:04, of “the [novel] I’ve written in its place, for you, to you, on the very edge of fiction.”
“I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity,” the narrator of 10:04 writes in its earliest pages. Part of the joy of Leaving the Atocha Station was in watching Adam Gordon’s self-absorption and concern over authenticity, over poetic beauty and philosophical grandeur run aground as reality wore away at his ego; only once his ego vanished did he become a truly affecting narrator who himself was affected by the world around him. And 10:04 feels like another chapter in Ben Lerner’s larger literary project, by enacting that transformation upon the reader. It is a book that rebukes us for our ego, and a book that rewards us for our sincere acceptance of Ben Lerner’s entire oeuvre.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is the digital editor of Music & Literature magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, The White Review, 3:AM Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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