Booked Up

Back to the Future

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is a poetic novel where change is constant and the future ever beckons.

By - Nov 13th, 2014 03:18 pm
10:04 by Ben Lerner.

10:04 by Ben Lerner.

Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, displays a brilliant literary mind at work on the puzzles of everyday existence. The novel is set in New York City in the recent past, as an unnamed narrator wanders the city contemplating his writing, a possible child in his future, and a potentially catastrophic medical diagnosis. Lerner is a talented and promising writer. His first book, Leaving the Atocha Station, won the 2012 Believer Book Award.

The title comes from the time on the clock tower in the movie Back to the Future when lightning strikes and Marty is allowed to return to 1985. How’s that for an arcane allusion? 10:04 is filled with such references and equally challenging vocabulary. I was sent to the dictionary often to look up many of Lerner’s mellifluous, but opaque word choices. If you enjoy interfacing with an active intelligence, this may be the book for you.

The novel opens with a retelling of an Hassidic story which says the afterworld will be exactly as this one, but “just a little different.” That trick of perception is the one real theme in this fascinating novel. The narrator wanders through his life in Manhattan and Brooklyn wondering what minute details have changed, what sensory input is shifting. This constant hypersensitivity is at first irritating, but later becomes the novel’s insistent message: nothing is ever the same; we are always being catapulted back to the future, even without realizing it.

There are many layers in this fictional version of Lerner’s real life and career. The narrator writes a story and it’s accepted at The New Yorker magazine; not a small feat. He doesn’t like their editing suggestions, so he asks his agent to withdraw it. After getting input from his family and friends, he realizes he has made a terrible mistake and begs the magazine to take the story back. Ben Lerner’s New Yorker story is then inserted into this book. It has reworked the actual events of the unnamed narrator’s life. This pattern of self-reference continues throughout the novel, taking us to a place where we no longer know or care what is real or made-up; the perfect place for fiction to happen.

There are many moving vignettes in this book, as well as comic moments. The narrator faces his own mortality as he comes to grips with his inoperable medical condition. He is also torn about whether to be sperm donor for an old girlfriend. We are witness to his embarrassing visit to an upscale sperm bank and his humorous imaginary dialogue with his future “daughter.” There are odd photos and drawings inserted into the text throughout to give us a visual point of reference. These culminate in the science project illustrations that the narrator helps a struggling public school kid add to his report.

These moments are set amidst the majesty and squalor of that ultimate American metropolis, New York City. The final section takes place in the wake of Superstorm Sandy and the havoc it visits on a supposedly indestructible community. Post-9/11, we are all too familiar with the feelings of helplessness we experience as our great cities are buffeted, whether by terrorists or assaults of weather.

While the self-reflexive story in 10:04 may not appeal to all readers, those in search of something unique and challenging will find much to engage with here. Lerner’s explorations read more like a poetic meditation than a traditional novel, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.

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Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, November 14 (5 :30 PM ): Woodland Pattern’s 2014 Anniversary Gala featuring Edward Sanders at Kenilworth Studios, Sixth Floor Raw Space, 1915 East Kenilworth Place. $80-$150

Friday, November 14 (7:00 PM): Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Sunday, November 16 (11 AM): Small Press Focus with Verge Books at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. FREE. (414) 263-5001

Sunday, November 16 (2:00 PM): Reading featuring John Tipton, Joel Felix, and Michael Autrey at Woodland Pattern Book Center. FREE.

Monday, November 17 (6:30 PM): Ticketed Dinner at Bacchus with Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood, Bones & Butter, and Prune. Tickets are $95 (plus tax and gratuity), include admission for one, a meal selected from the recipes in Prune served at Bacchus, and an autographed hardcover copy of Prune. Bacchus is located at 925 East Wells Street, Milwaukee. For tickets, please call Bacchus: (414) 765-1166. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Monday, November 17 (7:00 PM): David Bezmozgis, author of The Betrayersat Boswell Book Company. Co-sponsored by the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at UWM and The Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.

Tuesday, November 18 (7:00 PM): Kim Wilson, author of At Home with Jane Austen, at Boswell Book Company. Co-sponsored by the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Wednesday, November 19 (7:00 PM): Wisconsinite Kathleen Ernst, author of Tradition of Deceit, at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, November 19 (7:00 PM): Reading with Felice Picano, Nights at Rizzoli, and Carlos T. Mock, Historias, at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. (414) 963-9089.

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