Interested in the Octopuses

Ben Lerner’s great novel 10:04 directs our attention toward the little things while slyly addressing the big ones.

Illustration by Emily Carroll

Illustration by Emily Carroll

Ben Lerner’s second novel begins with the moment it becomes a commodity. In the first scene the author-narrator, “Ben,” meets his agent at an expensive restaurant in Manhattan, where he signs a lucrative contract for the (as-yet-unwritten) book on the basis of his “earnest if indefinite” proposal to expand a short story that appeared in The New Yorker. Writer and agent (she’s not named and only barely characterized, but she might be Lerner’s agent, Anna Stein, who also represents me) celebrate with baby octopus and flights of bluefin and discuss “why anybody would pay such a sum for a book of mine.”

That description might incline a reader to slot this quasi-autobiographical metafiction, titled 10:04, onto the shelf next to other recent novels set among Brooklyn’s literati. If you like those books (I like some of them), you might turn to 10:04 for up-to-the-minute ethnographic detail and sympathetic characterization enlivened by a few piquant notes of satire. Those hopes would be usefully dashed, because Lerner is working not to make his characters and settings recognizable but to make recognizable characters and settings strange.

Imagine a “dinner with the agent” scene in Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., the paragon of the literary-Brooklyn books. Waldman’s strategy is to apply the form of the 19th-century courtship novel to the disorderly love lives of cosmopolitan millennials. If she were to describe a young writer and his agent toasting a book deal over exotic seafood, Waldman would parse the choice of restaurant for what it reveals about the characters’ aspirations, note the effect of the deal on the writer’s sense of his own status, structure the dialogue to expose the characters’ subtle flirtations and embarrassments and power struggles.

Whereas Lerner is interested in the octopuses. He tells us where they came from and how they were treated: “delivered alive from Portugal each morning and then massaged gently but relentlessly with unrefined salt until their biological functions cease.” Rather than reading the food as a symptom of his characters’ taste or vanity he treats it materially, as a thing with its own substance and history.

Lerner’s anxious imagination is always spiraling outward like this. He can’t celebrate his advance without mentally converting it to “about twenty-five years of a Mexican migrant’s labor, seven of Alex’s in her current job. Or my rent, if I had rent control, for eleven years. Or thirty-six hundred flights of bluefin, assuming the species held.”

On every page, Lerner launches these macrocosmic flights from quotidian novelistic flâneurial stuff. Inasmuch as there’s a plot, it progresses gently and with minimal drama on several fronts at once. Having accepted the advance Ben sets out to expand his New Yorker story, “The Golden Vanity,” then abandons that attempt and instead, inevitably, writes 10:04, about the attempt to expand the story and the abandoning of the attempt. Ben’s friend Alex asks him to contribute his sperm for her to use to conceive a child; various medical and non-medical procedures take place to that end. Ben tutors a distractible, anxious third-grader named Roberto and takes him to the Museum of Natural History. Ben is diagnosed with a dilated aorta, which worries him.

But these sequences, although only occasionally dramatic or suspenseful, are consistently very interesting. Lerner is talented at noticing his mind’s feints and twitches, and thereby making the quotidian engaging. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station—a succès d’estime from the small but highly regarded Coffee House Press—was about pretentiousness, which it cleverly treated as an important and authentic aspect of human experience, and Ben’s aborted attempt to expand “The Golden Vanity” takes up a similar theme. But the narrator of 10:04 is concerned less with how he’s perceived than with larger questions: How to live, what to write, how to imagine a future.

In one scene, an Occupy Wall Street protester visits Ben’s apartment to use the shower, and, as Ben cooks a vegetable stir-fry for his guest, he realizes that he rarely cooks for other people.

I would like to say that … I was disturbed by the contradiction between my avowed political materialism and my inexperience with this brand of making, of poesis, but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism.

That’s a lot of argumentative twists packed into a single (abridged) sentence: Ben identifies his failure to cook as a hypocrisy, given his political commitments; to defend himself he deploys a sharp attack on foodie culture; but he regrets doing so (“I would like to say I was disturbed by the contradiction, but”), because now he’s not just a hypocrite, he’s a defensive hypocrite.

But he’s only getting warmed up. The realization that “nobody depended on me for this fundamental mode of care, of nurturing” makes him wish for a child—exactly the kind of sentimental opening-up we might expect to serve as the denouement of a novel about an uptight man who is about to become a father. But this isn’t that kind of book:

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 anti-capitalist 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 … Your gesture of briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic – your bathroom – into the commons leads you to re-describe the possibility of collective politics as the private drama of the family.

This is neurotic, but it’s sincere in its neurosis. 10:04 never lets Ben, or the reader, off the hook by pretending that having a child or getting married or chilling out might somehow avert the world-historical crises at the end of his every train of thought. After all, they won’t.

But then the protester emerges from the shower, and as they eat the stir-fry they have a funny conversation about the way men hold their genitals in public urinals. (The passage furthers the theme of common space and introduces a critique of masculine anxiety, but it’s also effective observational comedy and an escalating series of dick jokes.) And then Ben rides the subway uptown to see Christian Marclay’s video installation The Clock, which he has some thoughts about. (The book’s title comes from a moment in that film, a clip from Back to the Future in which a lightning strike opens an array of alternately apocalyptic and utopian futures.)

Photo courtesy of Matt Lerner.
Author Ben Lerner.

Photo courtesy of Matt Lerner.

10:04 is larded with critical descriptions of works of art, along with other seemingly foreign matter: a lecture on Ronald Reagan’s eulogy for the Challenger astronauts, a fragment of a poem, a fabricated letter from the late poet William Bronk (a pastiche that will be appreciated by a rather limited audience). Lerner takes art seriously, and he presents it as contiguous with the rest of life. There’s also a first-rate comic set piece in which Ben has to masturbate into a cup at a fertility clinic, and the text of “The Golden Vanity,” which really did appear in The New Yorker, and which takes on an oddly potent double life as an artifact within the narrative and a work of art in its own right. The novel is bookended by two storms, Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, catastrophes that are early warnings of the larger catastrophe of climate change. (The weather throughout the book is always “unseasonably warm,” a familiar unit of atmospheric description that becomes increasingly ominous.)

These disparate ingredients are held together by a set of overlapping motifs: the effect of commodity value on art; terrified adults attempting to reassure children; the transcendent emptying of assigned meanings and values. The echoes and repetitions are so explicit as to suggest poetry more than the novel as it’s usually practiced. Lerner has, in fact, published three books of verse, and he corrects someone in 10:04 who introduces him as a novelist: “More of a poet, I said.” (How obnoxious, to dissociate yourself from the novel in the course of writing a great one.) Over the course of the book these resonances accumulate power and strangeness: Their artfulness is in tension, productively, with the story’s apparently autobiographical surface. “Part of what I loved about poetry,” Lerner writes, “was how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction didn’t obtain.” As I read 10:04 I began to feel life itself take on the numinous significance, the seriousness, of art.

10:04 by Ben Lerner. Faber and Faber.

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