Ben Lerner’s second novel 10:04 is as unconventional as its title. If you’re looking for a straight forward narrative where all things are tied together nice and tightly in a smartly gift wrapped package, 10:04 is not for you. On the other hand, if you don’t mind a narrative that goes “spidering” off the page, spidering being a descriptor favored, but not really defined, by the author, a narrative that as often jumps from idea to idea, from event to event with what seems like haphazard velocity, this is a book right down your alley.
Almost from its very beginnings, the novel has been a genre ripe for experimentation, some serious, some playful—some both. Think Tristram Shandy. In many respects, 10:04 is a direct descendent. There is something of a storyline in each, indeed a couple of story lines, but you really don’t want to read either Tristram Shandy or 10:04 for its plot. It is the play of language. It is the examination of ideas. It is the creation of memorable scenes. So while 10:04 is the story of how a poet/novelist suddenly becomes marketable after a short story of his is published in The New Yorker, gets a large advance to expand it into a novel, and instead comes up with the novel we are reading, that story seems, other than for its meta-critical irony, the least important thing in the novel.
The joys of Lerner’s novel are in some of the set pieces: the narrator’s hilarious visit to the sperm donation office, the participant’s dinner after a literary panel discussion, the visit to the Museum of Natural History with a young boy he is mentoring, and a dozen or so other gem like scenes. The joys are in the challenging and often unconventional ideas about serious things like the “conflation of fact and fiction” and more frivolous concerns like men’s rituals during urination. It is in the description of his lunch with his agent which is indeed the first scene in the novel: it is “an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.”
10:04 is the kind of book that needs to be savored slowly. The baby octopuses of the celebratory meal may be swallowed whole; the book being celebrated needs to be chewed on.
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