January 2, 2015. 1:10 PM — approximately a week after finishing Ben Lerner’s inside-out, upside-down novel, 10:04, and my mind is still reeling as if from a drug-induced experience (or, at least, my perception of what a drug-induced experience could be like). That’s the simultaneous joy and pain of stepping inside Lerner’s mind for a few post-Christmas days: Lerner’s particular intensity of observation produces a similar intensity in his readers. One begins to notice everything as the author shows you what he notices. I haven’t slept as well since simply because I can’t turn my mind down enough for good sleep.
10:04 is a nearly inexplicable meta-fiction in which the author/narrator share a distinct, autobiographical line with the Author. Ben has just received word from his agent that if he were to expand the story he recently wrote for The New Yorker he would get a “strong six-figure” advance. That’s fact, or near enough, while the book begins with author and agent celebrating with an extravagant dinner in New York City over the same situation.
What follows is the book Lerner was supposed to write and the “fictional” life of an author named Ben that parallels the life of the actual author. It’s a somehow delightful story-within-a-story that blurs the line between fact and fiction so utterly a reader would have to know the author to decipher the two. Still, after reading the book I feel as though I know him.
10:04 is not really a novel in the sense that it has a plot. It’s more a series of interconnected observations closer to poetry in purpose:
Would you know what he meant if the author said he never really saw her face, that faces were fictions he increasingly could not read, a reductive way of bundling features in the memory, even if that memory was then projected into the present, into the area between the forehead and chin? …combining these elements into a face required forgetting them, letting them dematerialize into an effect.
The entire book has equally gestalt ramifications that compound and compound until the reader is delighted and oppressed simply by the weight of observation. Like good poetry, it’s impossible to set 10:04 aside and look around you the same way you looked before. There’s so much more to see. Everything is connected. In the words of Learner himself: “Everything was the same, only a little different.”
Trying to describe this book in more detail would be self-defeating. The quote above was taken from randomly flopping the book open and blindly picking a scene. No lie. I underlined practically a third of the book, and here’s why: Lerner does what few authors can do and all aspire to do. It’s eye-opening observation that’s paradoxically almost blinding in its intensity.
How many books have you read in which the climax/ideas/plot is/are grandiose and flashy or ambitious even though they mean very little, change very little? 10:04 is the opposite of that. Which is poetry.