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.