10:04 begins with a celebratory meal of "baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death". Photograph: Getty Images.
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A neon Rubik’s Cube of a novel, designed for our economic age: 10:04 by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s second novel tries to emulate Walt Whitman’s democratic “I” in an age when economic imperatives trump democracy. It is a clever and timely work — as much the story of the novel’s construction as the novel itself.

The American poet and novelist Ben Lerner seems pathologically compelled to show his working. His 2011 prose debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, describes a sort of intellectual gap year in which a talented but unstable young poet – unstable in both the narrative and the psychiatric senses of the word – recounts his time on a prestigious academic fellowship in Spain. He lays out his scattered approach to writing poetry, “a dead medium whose power could be felt only as a loss”, alongside a cynical appraisal of its results: “I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose,” the tranquilliser-munching Adam Gordon explains, “so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.”

In 10:04, Lerner’s second novel – and, for my money, the better of two very good books – all the angst about “the possibility of poetic experience” is supplanted by a debate about art’s role in representing the collective, “the stuff out of which we build a social world”, unifying diverse elements in moments of crisis. 10:04 is an attempt to emulate Walt Whitman’s democratic “I” in an age when economics trumps democracy. It’s a neon Rubik’s Cube of a book – as much the story of the novel’s conception as the novel itself.

The book begins and ends with two storms, Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012), threatening to submerge New York City. A 33-year-old writer and teacher named Ben is ruminating on the possibility of a second novel, “something I’d promised my poet friends I wasn’t going to do”, after his agent suggests over a lunch of baby octopus that he could score a “strong six-figure” advance. Soon afterwards, the narrator learns he is suffering from a potentially fatal heart syndrome. At the same time he is forced to confront the prospect of involvement with a baby human when his best friend, Alex – “less a couple than conjoined” – proposes he father a child with her by intrauterine insemination, “because, as she put it, ‘fucking you would be bizarre’”.

If this all sounds rather humourless it shouldn’t. 10:04 contains all the neurosis-induced pratfalls, sly jokes and ego laceration that made Leaving the Atocha Station as fun as it was smart. “I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city,” our narrator declares at the start of the novel, with his tongue in his cheek and his heart on his sleeve, serious and not serious at once, “a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.”

The plan is to expand a short story he has written for the New Yorker, the full text of which appears unchanged in the second part of the book (in a typeface of the kind you’d find in a magazine). The story was published in advance of 10:04 but reads differently now that it follows a plausible account of the thinking and experiences that produced it. We are allowed to witness the construction of the story, its repeated phrases, its mingling of fact and fiction (though it’s anyone’s guess the degree to which this resembles Lerner’s own technique), to identify moments of plagiarism and see how the whole evolves. The process is oddly thrilling.

The same can be said of the novel overall. After inventing a plot about fabricated emails from dead authors – into which he planned to insert a handful of philosophical tales, placed instead in the mouths of friends and acquaintances – our narrator conceives of “a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction . . . an actual present alive with multiple futures”, while on a writing residency in Marfa, Texas. He discards the “novel about fraudulence” because “art has to offer something more than stylised despair”. By the time we have finished reading it, he is ready to deliver the book he promised his agent “while eating cephalopods in what would become the opening scene”.

The title 10:04 is significant: this is the time at which lightning hits the courthouse in Back to the Future, allowing Marty McFly to power up his DeLorean time machine and return to 1985. The novel has a similarly life-or-death stake in time travel. In an early scene, the narrator stands with Alex looking at Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comparing the young Joan’s dematerialised, outstretched hand, “pulled into the future” by torch-bearing angels, with Marty’s near non-existence as his parents almost fail to meet. In a variety of encounters – with an Occupy protester who occupies his bathroom for 20 minutes, with the Mexican boy he tutors, and with a 22-year-old who has snaffled too much ketamine at a party in Texas – Ben is testing himself for a possible future of fatherhood.

In Leaving the Atocha Station, Adam Gordon decides he will write poems “of such beauty and significance”, they will convince his friends “they had been in the presence of a poet who alone was able to array the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it”. Like that book, 10:04 reads like a collage: a scrapbook bursting with quotations, puzzles, metafictional diary entries, conversations and printed images, assembled in a future where the word “novel” has lost its original meaning, and shot back into the past where it stretches out its hand.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism