10:04 by Ben Lerner review – visions of New York under water

A dazzling novel about the interplay of life and art in contemporary Manhattan sets out to work its way ‘from irony to sincerity’

Like the author himself, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel is a poet who has experienced great critical acclaim for his debut novel. As the book opens, the unnamed writer is enjoying an opulent meal with his agent, celebrating the six-figure advance he has secured for his as yet unwritten follow-up: “We were eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene … ”

The second section of the novel consists of “The Golden Vanity”, the New Yorker short story that prompted the narrator’s substantial advance, and which transposes names and details of the story and characters introduced in part one. This may seem tricksy in a way we’ve seen many times before. A novel about writing a novel; a narrator who is and is not the author; general metafictional horsing around reflecting both the author’s and reader’s ambivalence about the novel. But Lerner’s playfulness does not come from despair or disparagement. His character claims that he wants to work his way “from irony to sincerity” and in the end does not deliver the book on literary fraudulence that he originally proposes, but rather “the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them … ”

The spine of this flickering narrative is the decision by the writer to allow his best friend Alex to impregnate herself with his sperm, a costly procedure that will be funded by the publishing advance. The novel tracks the progress of these two interconnected acts of creation – baby and novel.

Like Lerner’s debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, this is an extremely funny book, the narrator’s neuroses providing most of the laughs. His inability to tell his nephews a bedtime story without becoming embroiled in problems with tense leads to a small panic attack. His anxiety at being responsible for a young boy causes him to regress and come close to wetting his pants on a trip to the museum. His concerns about hand hygiene turn his sperm donation into a looping “Beckettian drama”. He later imagines his potential future daughter questioning him on the cost of her creation as contrasted with the pay level of the female actors in the pornography used to facilitate donation: “What was the annual per capita gross national income of China at the time of ejaculation?”

It is also a political book. 10:04 begins and ends with potentially catastrophic storms hitting New York, and is loaded with the narrator’s intimations of a future ice age and the city under water. He earnestly attempts to grapple with the “murderous stupidity” of global capitalism both ideologically and practically: offering food and hot water to an Occupy protester, acting as tutor to the child of undocumented immigrants. He remains, however, razor-sharp in his skewering of piety and hypocrisy in both himself and others. When a co-worker at the Park Slope Food Co-op talks of removing her child from the public education system, he sees through her anxiety about additives and chemicals to a different kind of fear: “from those who out of ignorance or desperation have allowed their children’s digestive tracts to know deep-fried, mechanically processed chicken, those who happen to be, in Brooklyn, disproportionately black and Latino, Lucas must be protected at whatever cost.”

The title of the novel is taken from the film Back to the Future: 10:04 is the time on the courthouse clock when lightning strikes, allowing Marty to return to 1985. While there is no flux capacitor in Lerner’s novel, there is a multiplicity of pasts, presents and futures. Time and again characters tell stories (Lerner is a gripping storyteller) in which they uncover fictions in their lives: a woman who learns she is not half-Lebanese; a man who discovers his girlfriend is not terminally ill; a phantom daughter unknown to her parents. In each instance, tellers of these tales feel the “world rearrange itself” around them. The present obliterates the past. The epigraph of the novel contains a quote from a Hasidic story: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different” – a line that captures the mingling of fiction, non-fiction, illusory pasts and projected futures. Lerner uses the same rather eye-catching words and phrases again and again: proprioception, craquelure, lacrimal events, stout-bodied passerines (late in the book he playfully acknowledges that pigeons, which he persistently describes thus, are not in fact true passerines).

Despite the narrator’s sense of the city sinking and his belief that “our society could not, in its present form, go on”, reading 10:04 is far from a bleak experience. The novel is filled with moments of transcendence and glimpses of alternative ways of being and perceiving. The narrator’s girlfriend Alena establishes the Institute for Totaled Art, consisting of damaged artworks that have been written off by their insurers. Lerner describes the thrill of holding one such work: “an object for or from a future where there was some other regime of value than the tyranny of price”.

His sense of the sublime when viewing Manhattan, an intimation of some collective body or “second-person plural”, overwhelms him: “Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity – whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility … ” Or, as the narrator explains more succinctly to his imagined daughter: “Art has to offer something other than stylised despair.” In this dazzling, absorbing novel Lerner certainly does.

• Catherine O’Flynn’s latest book is Mr Lynch’s Holiday (Penguin). To order 10:04 for £11.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Catherine O'Flynn

The GuardianTramp

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