10:04 The Last Book of the Year

Ben Lerner's second novel was not my choice for reading on holiday. It was imposed by my traveling companion. As soon as he was finished, without question, I should begin. My finishing E.M. Forster's 'The Longest Journey' coincided with his completion; and, so I did. Happily as it transpired.

Part of the happiness might be explained by not being Forster! 'The Longest Journey' was Forster's own personal favourite and the one the critics, consensually, have least liked. The critics, I fear, are right which goes to show, at least, that writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work. You can see how the book is vitally important to its author and that very anxiety - that it should work - obstructs its ability to do so. It is akin to that moment in cooking when your concern for whether something is done makes you constantly intervene and make sure that it will come out wrong!

A key theme of '10:04' is what should an author write. It is a novel about a writer, who amongst the everyday complexities of their life, is in the process of writing a novel and, ironically, rather than write the novel that is proposed, ends serving up this exploration (and its wider context) as the novel in question.

At one level, this could be merely clever (and cleverness is precisely the fussiness that defeats Forster - and the culinary art) but running through the book are themes that redeem.

The first of which relates to the book's epigraph that tells of a Hasidic story that the world to come will be just as this world and yet everything will be a little different and this shift will make all the difference. Running through the novel is this sense of 'phase shift' - what happens to us, to our world when we see it differently? Threatened by storm, and its peril, in New York, every object appears heightened in significance. An artist's installation is first sterile in the whitewashed galleries of the city yet takes on a renewed life when placed in a different context both natural and historical.

That leads to the next which is the virtue of second looks. Throughout the book, you have an author, a protagonist, who is constantly revising what they see, think, feel and acknowledging the importance of this. Thus, by way of example, a thread in the book is the author's support for Roberto, a child of undocumented parents, whom he helps after school. They work on a project together involving dinosaurs and how the 'brontosaurus' was a scientific mistake. It was a misattribution of two unconnected fossils that, even when it was corrected, persisted in popular depictions. Second looks are important but sadly not always effectual.

Third is that fictions matter and yet the stories we tell must continually confront what we imagine as 'reality'.  Our author volunteers at a local co-op where a co-worker tells her story of discovering that her purported father, Lebanese, was in fact not her biological father. Her identification with a Middle Eastern heritage, replete with political engagement and social action, was a 'fiction', however deeply felt, so who is she now? The very real fiction of emotional connection and history or the established biological fact?

What is so enjoyable about "10:04" is that it shoots you off in a myriad of possible directions only touched on here. It has the polyvalence of poetry, unsurprisingly since its author is primarily a poet (both in fact and, I suspect, in reality).

It, also, has delightful set pieces suffused with acute observation and humour. The peculiar dynamics of masturbating to order in a clinic to provide sperm for a friend. The choice of inoffensive and thus ineffectual art at a doctor's surgery. The paradoxical dynamics of a conversation with one's agent where literary merit dances uneasily with pecuniary satisfaction.

Finally, it is rightly obsessed (in a very quiet way) with time. With its nature and its refusal to proceed in a linear fashion from past to present to future, like a proper story, seen, first and foremost, in the novel's refusal to be a novel.


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