Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: "10:04" by Ben Lerner

You think you have problems? Ben, the narrator of Ben Lerner's sarcastic, intelligent new novel, 10:04, has you beat. While he's struggling to write a follow-up to his first novel now that he's gotten a generous advance, New York is under threat of two serious hurricanes (Irene and Sandy), and his longtime best friend wants to have a baby with him—whether he wants to be involved or not. Oh, and at any time, his aorta could rupture, so he's convinced himself he has every symptom imaginable.

10:04 follows this tumultuous time in Ben's life. But more than merely a litany of his problems, this book is a razor-sharp meditation on our socially hyper-aware yet pretentious culture, as he skewers the literary world, social movements, and fine dining. (Believe me, if you've ever been so inclined before, this book may make you swear off eating octopus for a while.) This is a novel-within-a-novel, so at times you're not sure whether Ben is recounting what is actually happening or fictionalizing what is happening to the Ben-like character in his novel.

"Say that it was standing there that I decided to replace the book I'd proposed with the book you're reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures."

The above quote demonstrates Ben's (and Ben Lerner's) preoccupation with the blurred line between the present, past, and future. (10:04 refers to the time that Marty McFly returns to the past in the movie Back to the Future.)

Some books hold you in their thrall with gripping plot and characterization, while some mesmerize you with their use of language and narrative. This book definitely falls into the latter category. Lerner's writing dazzled me at times, and while the plot wasn't always easy to follow because of the blurring between fact and fiction, I couldn't stop reading because I was so impressed by his talent. Here's another example:

"Emerging from the train, I found it was fully night, their air excited by foreboding and something else, something like the feel of a childhood snow day when time was emancipated from institutions, when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time, or like defeated time itself falling from the sky, each glittering ice particle an instant gifted back from your routine."

This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, often funny book. It's not an easy read, because Lerner's writing is densely packed (although not in a bad way), but it's definitely a worthwhile read.

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