Ben Lerner, 10:04

I’ve just finished Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel 10:04, and I recommend you buy it. Not just because, if you buy through that link I just offered, I’ll get a ridiculously small commission that will pay for about one tenth of one mile of gas on a 24mpg car, but because it has made me think a great deal about a number of themes in my own life: the character of our relationships, our material connections to other people near and far, the character and value (and non-value) of art, the possibility of an individual and a shared future, the overlap between the past and the present (and the future), the ways that arriving futures can affect the nature of the history leading up to them (a history that fails to achieve realization can vanish like Michael J. Fox’s hand in Back to the Future – for which this book is named), and the redemptive possibilities within life and history.

The book opens with a series of juxtapositions — the author’s just been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening health condition, an expanding aorta that could rupture through over-expansion (collateral to his probable Marfanism, though he is not an obvious candidate for the diagnosis); the city that seems to suffer social differentiation at a kind of alarming rate; he eats a baby octopus at a restaurant — an octopus that, despite its intelligence, cannot put together a coherent picture of the world through its senses, but can only form local images from its various arms — an octopus with which he begins to identify, and which becomes a lens, during the opening of the book, of the social, material, and psychological incoherences of our lives; New York City is about to receive what is trumped-up to be a terribly threatening storm that will shut down infrastructures; his best friend, a woman Alex, wants to impregnate herself with his sperm, but artificially, because sex with him would be “bizarre”. As with the author’s aorta, expanding, so with this relationship — there is a kind of spatial expansion between the two, even though they are so often side-by-side on walks, or in art galleries; as with the author’s aorta being a possible future disaster, yet to determine whether these forecasts and diagnoses lead to an event that they anticipate, so too with Alex and the possibility of the author’s being a father — or of his simply fading, just being a sperm donor while she and the child make a life apart from him. –and so on; the book is filled with disruptions and futures that make solid the history leading up to them, or which make the histories leading up to them of no consequence, a road leading nowhere — and doomed to fade and to be forgotten, like the limbs of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future when the future he was working to bring about was not happening.

There are many times when “the world rearranges itself around” this or that person in the novel; this form of spatio-temporal disruption is key. Only once does it involve drugs. At one point, the author is listening to the story of a woman who had identified with the ethnicity of her Lebanese father at the expense of her Jewish mother, championing its interests on campus and in the wider world, frequently traveling back to Lebanon, only to find out later in her late 20s (or something), after her father dies, that her real father was an Anglo-American guy, and that her Lebanese father married her mother at the very beginning of her pregnancy; this girl’s identity, the Arab-American causes she championed, were thrown into disarray; could she continue to inhabit this identity? What future is open to her? Will she lose this history? –and so on. As she was told of her real father, she looked down at her arms, and her skin seemed to whiten before her eyes. It may seem trivial, but the thematic unity of these stories, and the masterful way that they’re told, gives them a great power for illuminating real life; at any rate, these are the kinds of stories that are retold as the events of the novel unfold.

Space and time come first in our experience in Kant — they are how the world is structured by the forms of bodily intuition before the categories of the understanding do anything. Time and space are often collapsed –or else opened up– by the events and connections in this book. Sometimes, it is a material object that stretches across centuries, uniting the people around it (a streetlamp, for example, or an old building).

Usually, however, it is not a material object that unites people across time that 10:04 focuses on, but a shift of context that liberates people and even objects, even if the object or person is broken in order to be removed from one context, and, for a moment, signal another context of value, another horizon of meaning, beyond the one that he or she or it was located in, and which could become a kind of tyranny, closing off futures, or else lowering the person or thing. There is an institute for totaled art (I think that’s actually the name of it; it refers to a real-life counterpart with a different name) in this book that displays art that an insurance company has deemed “totaled”, and so of no value, and some of the art pieces have little or no discernible damage, raising the question of the relationship between art and its different registers of value (money and something else).

One of the objects in this institute triggers this awareness of messianic significance for an ordinary art object; a Hasidic eschatological theme (something like “in the world to come, everything will be as it is now…only a little different”) runs as a thread throughout the very worldly events within this book. The institute for totaled art (not capitalized because I’m not sure that’s its proper name) features an art object that

had been redeemed, both in the sense that the fetish had been converted back into cash, the claim paid out, but also in the messianic sense of being saved from something, saved for something. An art commodity that had been exorcised (and survived the exorcism) of the fetishism of the market was to me a utopian readymade — an object for or from a future where there was some other regime of value than the tyranny of price. [134]

In one scene at the beginning, when the storm is about to hit, Alex and the author are doing shopping; they buy instant coffee, among other things, because how will one acquire coffee in NYC once all of the ordinary capitalist systems fail? The impending storm changes so many ordinary things, alters so many relationships, highlights chains of dependency and the structure of our shared life. Alex and the author are almost intimate as they crash in the same bed; they are not. The morning after, the author looks at the instant coffee, which is “no longer an emissary from a world to come”. [24] “Everything will be the same…but a little different.”

In many ways, the reason that so many characters’ perception of space and time break down is, I think, because they are the most basic structural elements of our lives, and, when they are rattled even a little, they open up a moment where the medium-sized goods of our daily lives can open up with a light of this messianic significance, a significance which can never arrive in any reified set of spatial or temporal arrangements, but which breaks through in the disruption of our currently reified arrangements, as a possible future, but one that is “not yet”; the experience of the breakdown is horrifying, and genuinely cuts off some futures, but is also liberating, at times the necessary means of opening futures up for inhabiting.

10:04 reads smoothly — so much of its writing reads like a set of masterfully written blog posts about surreal experiences within an unusual (but imaginable) reality. These scenes are worth gathering together, and hold together along the themes mentioned above (though the book’s theme could surely be simplified). Throughout, Lerner shows his immersion in a wide range of learning that never comes out bombastically, never interferes with these unusual and fascinating human experiences and situations, but allows him to pick up on their depth.

I could write so much more about these themes and so many others within this novel, which I have enjoyed greatly; I may return to it, at some point. It has inspired me to go back and read Hegel, and the young Marx, and Walter Benjamin’s work on the philosophy of history, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

This review is written under a glass of wine, after a Thanksgiving meal; I do hope it makes sense, and inspires you, dear reader, to pick up a copy. Be sure to let me know what you think of it in the comment section!


Header image found here.

7 thoughts on “Ben Lerner, 10:04

  1. I came across this comment: ‘I quit at page 14 when he used “multifingered extremities” instead of just “hands”.’
    There’s others like it. Is there any truth to their claims the writing is pretentious?

    Liked by 1 person

        • That’s helpfull, thanks! Still, not sure about passages like this:
          “So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anticapitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household, that almost caricatural transvaluation of values lubricated by wine and song. Your gesture of briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic–your bathroom–into the commons leads you to redescribe the possibility of collective politics as the private drama of the family. All of this in the time it took to prepare an Andean chenopod. What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostasizing as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co-construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit.”
          It’ll be slow reading I guess 🙂It could work for me though, if there’s actually enough meat on the bone.

          Liked by 1 person

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