Book Diary: 10:04 (Ben Lerner)

I have a relationship to and with this author.  My sister Amy and I stalked him – that is literarily speaking, not literally – around Madrid in 2013 after reading Leaving the Atocha Station.  I feel very invested in him and his work.  Maybe it is for this reason – loving his first novel so much – that it took me so long to get around to reading 10:04.  I remember when Amy happened upon this, his second novel, in our local bookshop; she called me immediately with screams of excitement and I waited increasingly impatiently for her to finish reading it so I could have it next.  However, when she did finally hand it over, I waited another year to read it.  I think I was nervous to break the spell of my relationship with Lerner’s first novel and also, more practically, I remember at the time I was going through an intensely all-female author phase.

10.04

Whatever the reason, or reasons, I finally picked it up a few days ago and two days later had finished it.  I was under house-arrest because of a bad cold and was going crazy with a mixture of cabin fever and an existential crisis that probably resulted from said house-arrest/cold but which I would have sworn at the time was really due to the all-pervasive meaninglessness of existence in general (I’m over that now).  I’m writing this a few days later yet and I’m still stunned (he is just so fucking smart) and still half living within the novel’s pages.

During this weekend of house-arrest and intensive reading, my sister was busy collating the material for an entrance essay for a Masters in Literature.  She asked me if I had any literary criticism left over from my own MA in Literature that may be useful to her essay title.  I sent her some pictures of contents pages and titles and she replied letting me know that what I sent was somewhat useless, as in the years since we both studied literature academically, post-modernism had died and had been replaced with schools of thought such as: Cybertecho-Modernism and Alter-Modernism, etc.  I actually love literary criticism and I love labelling things.  I remember when I was studying, being fascinated with Total Theory and simultaneously, and a little contradictorily, Deconstruction.  However, when Amy sent me this information all I could think was how it sounded ridiculous and irrelevant, and that the only thing that actually really did feel like the future was the novel I was reading right then, and it’s author.

For a novel that is concerned with time, like 10:04 is, it is interesting to me that some novels that try to, or want to reflect something new and/or the now, can end up having the opposite effect and instead feel out-moded, hackneyed even as they are trying to project the future, or reflect the present.  They actually end up (for me) pushing themselves backwards, or relegating themselves to the past.  However, Lerner really does feel like the future, and his use of unusual structure and form is part of why he feels so imperative.  An example: I remember when email first came into wide-use and some novels would incorporate emails into their pages (or by the same token, authors would make soon-to-be out-dated contemporary references), it felt crunchy and awkward, but Lerner’s switching of form (short stories, poems, children’s books, fiction, non-fiction) feels entirely natural, right and above all inventive and new.

The treatment of time in the novel also felt to me a little like hopefulness.  Through the projected possible futures, one feels like one is time travelling, could feel the different lives/options all existing at once, so as to make one feel less trapped in the present (even if most of the wider futures projected in the novel are bleak, or apocalyptic).  Maybe this feeling of hopefulness had to do with the situation in which I was reading it, that is to say: trapped, locked away, broadly bored and frustrated, yet I was able to escape through the book and at the same time imagine the other lives I was possibly living at the same time as the boring, ill one I was actually.

Whilst reading this novel, I was also reading the Spanish translation of Slaves of New York.  Both Slaves of New York and 10:04 are set in New York, but from very different eras in the city’s (and the world’s) history, and very different in style also.  I like both books, but can’t help but keep wondering, as 10:04 remains in my blood, what Lerner thinks/would think of Slaves of New York, in general, and in the sense of reading it now from his Brooklyn of 2016 about the New York of the 1980s.

Finally, as I have said many times on this blog, sometimes a book is so clever, so affecting, so full of artistry, that it is hard to write about it, to know exactly what you want to say about it, what you want to record, whilst feeling, moreover, that whatever you say about it is simply nonsense and that you aren’t worthy to share sentence space with such high art.  However, as I have the perfect get out for this (this is a diary, these are personal thoughts, so they cannot be held up to any standardised standards of judgement) and because it is exactly because a novel can be so affecting that it feels important to record the effect it has had on you – for these reasons I wanted to write about 10:04.

As a bet on a future, a bet that there will be a future, and as a way of remembering that I have read and loved this book, I might put a bet on Ben Lerner winning the Nobel Prize for Literature one day.

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