Ben Lerner

In Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), Ben Lerner sought to answer a single question: what would life be like if we lived it, truly and deeply, through the lens of critical theory and post-structuralism?

Leaving the Atocha Station was Lerner’s first novel—he had previously published three collections of poetry—and, at first glance, it seemed more a lark than anything else. Here was a poet trying his hand at the fiction game and enjoying every minute of it. All the elements of a comic masterpiece were there: the absurdity of a young American poet named Adam Gordon smoking, worrying, and deconstructing his way through a fellowship in Spain; the lazy aimlessness of the novel’s plot; the casual tone; the quotable lines (“the flattering light of the subjunctive”). Other recent novels have drawn attention to the silly posturing of literary theory—think The Marriage Plot—but none did it so well as Lerner’s.

Yet what made Leaving the Atocha Station so remarkable was how, even while it mocked theory, it also took theory’s claims seriously, exploring how they might influence and warp the texture of an actual life. How could Adam establish romantic intimacy when he saw such intimacy as “enhanced by ambiguity of intention, as if it too required translation”? How would Adam, who believed the self to be “one of the handful of prefabricated subject positions proffered by capital or whatever you wanted to call it,” actually go about the task of building a self? In its attention to the consequences of real ideas on real experience, Leaving the Atocha Station proved itself to be not just a farcical romp but something more substantial.

Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, is a more sober—and sobering—work, and it further confirms that he is not simply a poet messing around with the novel form. To be clear, Lerner hasn’t lost his taste for the absurd. Plenty of scenes are played for laughs, as when the narrator, donating sperm at a fertility clinic, struggles to masturbate without fouling the results: “What could be more contaminating than this remote control, which had been in how many sullied hands?” But these moments are not the real center of 10:04. Where Lerner’s first novel represented what a theory-driven life might look like—a life with irony but without intimacy, with deep anxiety but without introspection—10:04 represents what kind of life can be lived once you’ve realized this fact, once you’ve seen that meaning might be possible in traditional, seemingly boring pursuits like having a family and loving others.

• • •

The unnamed narrator of Lerner’s new book is a thirty-three-year-old poet whose first novel received surprising critical and popular attention. As 10:04 opens, the narrator hears that his new, as-yet unwritten second novel has just received a “strong six-figure” advance from a major publishing house—an advance based upon a story of his that has recently appeared in The New Yorker. Sixty pages later, this short story, “The Golden Vanity,” is reproduced in its entirety. Names have been changed and details fudged, but, we are told, “The Golden Vanity” borrows heavily and obviously from the narrator’s own life. Like the narrator—and, of course, like Lerner—the main character of “The Golden Vanity” has recently published his first novel to “unexpected praise.” Like the narrator’s first novel, and like Lerner’s, this surprisingly successful novel is narrated by a writer who feels anxious about “the disconnect between his internal experience and his social self-presentation.” The metafictional layering here is intricate—Lerner himself published “The Golden Vanity” in The New Yorker—and familiar: Leaving the Atocha Station played with the border between fact and fiction, too.

Lerner’s first novel represented what a theory-driven life might look like—a life with irony but without intimacy, with deep anxiety but without introspection.

Yet despite such surface similarities and metafictional games, 10:04 displays a newfound interest in plotting. Leaving the Atocha Station was a postmodern picaresque. It followed Adam’s side adventures: Watch Adam get lost in Barcelona! Now watch him visit a museum! But more importantly, it followed Adam’s mind as it interpreted and re-interpreted these experiences. Even in intense narrative moments, as in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, event immediately and inexorably gave way to analysis.

10:04, however, acknowledges that plot has its own distinctive—and not uncomplicated—pleasures. In the novel’s very first pages, the narrator learns that he likely has Marfan syndrome, a heart condition that may require surgery and could turn fatal with any strenuous activity. This diagnosis elicits syntactically complex ruminations: “That [the doctors] were younger than I constituted an unfortunate milestone beyond which medical science could no longer stand in benevolent paternal relation to my body because such doctors would now see in my pathologized corpus their own future decline and not their past immaturity.” But it also elicits simple, elemental fear. The narrative stakes are infinitely high. The worst fate is not to be uncovered as an intellectual fraud, as Adam feared in Leaving the Atocha Station. The worst fate is to die. The danger here is existential rather than social.

Extinction looms over the whole novel, both at the personal level—the narrator regularly worries over his body’s fragility—and at the global level. 10:04 is bookended by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, with Lerner brilliantly evoking the dreadful electricity that runs through a city when it faces apocalypse. While dealing with these threats, the narrator helps a young boy named Roberto to research and write a book “about the scientific confusion regarding the brontosaurus.” (What we call the “brontosaurus” was actually a paleontological mistake, with the head of a camarasaurus put on the body of an apatosaurus.) Later in the book, Alex, the narrator’s best friend, convinces him to donate his sperm so that she can have a child.

A serious health crisis; looming global catastrophe; a friendship between mentor and mentee; two friends coming together to start a quasi-family: such dramatic plotlines complicate Lerner’s constant reminders that what we are reading is just a piece of artifice. They imply that how you live in the face of death and whether or not you have a family really do matter. To put it another way: Lerner is still interested in pulling the fictional rug out from under our feet, but he is also interested in showing that the rug is there for a reason. Recent narrative-heavy novels such as The Goldfinch and The Luminaries have generated critical interest in talking more intelligently about plot and its fruitful manipulations. 10:04 is far, far looser—and far, far less dramatic—than either of these two books. But like them, it reminds us that narrative is not a mere addendum to literary style. Plot helps us to see the consequences that life events have beyond the interpretations they give rise to.

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Perhaps the most shocking part of 10:04 is just how kind it feels, how Lerner is unafraid to show the narrator escaping intellectual solipsism and expressing real emotion. At the novel’s end, the narrator has an illustrated edition of Roberto’s book on the brontosaurus printed and distributed to the boy’s friends and family. The event is not as straightforwardly triumphant as the narrator might have hoped: he realizes “that the $2,000 could be used by Roberto’s family in much more practical ways,” and he finds himself frustrated by Roberto’s lack of appreciation for his generous gesture—a frustration that reveals the gesture is motivated, at least in part, by a longing to be seen as kind. But, and this is crucial, the revelation doesn’t negate the kindness, either. It is a kind act. Irony is still present—the narrator’s apparently selfless gift is also a bit selfish—but sincerity is present, too. At another point, the narrator takes Roberto to the American Museum of Natural History: “I consciously registered the fact that I had never been so responsible for another person, at least not a young person.” The narrator is responsible for Roberto, not just in that he is acting as his chaperone but also in that he cares about the child. Likewise, the narrator’s decision to father Alex’s child is, quite literally, a decision to live beyond the confines of the individual self.

Several times in 10:04, the narrator addresses the reader directly as “you”; elsewhere, he refers to the importance of “the second person plural” to literary creation. Lerner probably picked this trick up from Walt Whitman and John Ashbery, both of whom address such a “you” in their own work. In making this direct address, it appears that Lerner is trying to close the gap between reader and writer, to suggest that, just as the narrator moves beyond the self to engage with and care for the world, so Lerner is trying to move beyond absolute self-reflexivity to engage with and care for his readers. Leaving the Atocha Station asked that we admire Lerner’s craft but disdain his characters. 10:04 asks that we care for both, and that we see that part of craft is creating characters who we, the readers, care for.  

In 10:04, Lerner is unafraid to show the narrator escaping intellectual solipsism and expressing real emotion.

Indeed, the book’s interest in the self in relation to the people and world beyond it is striking. Early in the novel, after the narrator has received his diagnosis, he thinks about his experience of physical embodiment:

It can taste what it touches, but has poor proprioception, the brain unable to determine the position of its body in the current, particularly my arms, and the privileging of flexibility over proprioceptive inputs means it lacks stereognosis, the capacity to form a mental image of the overall shape of what I touch: it can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate that information into a larger picture, cannot read the realistic fiction the world appears to be.

“Proprioception,” the body’s sense of its position in space, is a central motif, and it stands as a figure for the many ways in which the narrator tries to understand himself as occupying a particular place and time within the broader structures of geographical and temporal experience. The narrator realizes that he privileges “flexibility over proprioceptive inputs,” sensation over structure, self over the systems that shape the self. But his looming death—the possible extinction of the self—helps him to realize this fact and, for the rest of the novel, he tries to more accurately and consistently see himself as relationally constituted.

While shopping at a Whole Foods before “an unusually large cyclonic system with a warm core” hits New York, the narrator has an epiphany. Most of the shelves are empty, but then he sees a container of instant coffee:

I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvest on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellín and vacuum-sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported back by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label. It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close.

The apocalyptic storm enables the narrator to see the social and economic relations, “the organization of time and space and fuel and labor,” that are normally obscured within the commodity, just as his Marfan diagnosis enables him to see, or at least to see that he is not seeing, the relation of self to “larger picture.”                                                                                                                         

A sharper contrast with Leaving the Atocha Station couldn’t be imagined. For Adam, all the traditional sources of value—love, poetry, meaning—dwell only in possibility, ever refusing to become stable or determinate. He finds himself attracted to a language instructor named Isabel precisely because the Spanish that she speaks and that he can’t quite understand suggests infinite possibility: he is enchanted by the “ability to dwell among possible referents, to let them interfere and separate like waves, to abandon the law of excluded middle while listening to Spanish.”

The new novel’s title comes from one of its major source texts, Back to the Future. In that film, 10:04 is the moment when lightning strikes the courthouse clock tower, allowing Marty to return to his own present. 10:04 offers proprioception instead of potentiality, situating-as-epiphany rather than decentering-as-epiphany.

• • •

The novel concludes with the narrator and Alex walking from Manhattan to Brooklyn, observing the city that has just been hammered by Hurricane Sandy. The IVF has been successful: Alex has “a small mammal developing within her—this was the week for taste buds, teeth buds.” After the walk ends, the narrator contemplates turning his experience into art:

Sitting at a small table looking through our reflection in the window onto Flatbush Avenue, I will begin to remember our walk in the third person, as if I’d seen it from the Manhattan Bridge, but, at the time of writing, as I lean against the chain-link fence intended to stop jumpers, I am looking back at the totaled city in the second person plural. I know it’s hard to understand / I am with you, and I know how it is.

There, again, is “you,” the “second-person plural” that the novel has addressed throughout. The narrator’s final words come from Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and they crucially leave out the beginning of the line: “I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.” Self-projection vanishes, and the narrator’s voice blends with another’s. We are left with communion, a bid for intimacy that gives rise to the novel we’ve just read—intimacy between the narrator and Alex, between the narrator and the city, and between Lerner and his readers.