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on September 12, 2014
Ben Lerner's first novel, "Leaving the Atocha Station" was one of the most powerful reading experiences I've ever had, largely for purely personal reasons; I started reading that book (set mostly in Madrid and Barcelona) literally a day after I myself had concluded a visit to Spain, and seeing almost all of the places I had just visited serve as the background for that books gorgeous, misanthropic, elegantly sad narration was an extremely potent experience; like having a much more cynical, much more intelligent older sibling whispering a dark interpretation into my ear of some of what I had just experienced on my own. Lerner himself spent time in Spain on a poetry fellowship; the source of much of the novel's inspiration.

His new novel, 10:04 has an even stronger biographical focus than his first one. We follow the narrator, an up and coming writer and poet living in New York, as he wanders around the city in the space between hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the large, faux-meteorolgical apocalypses that shook New York in the last 3-4 years yet failed to produce the great post-9/11 disaster that was predicted. Between those storms (whose sense of tension and communal worry/excitement Lerner evokes with a cool, contemplative hysteria), we see a young intellectual in full post-millenial flower. He, worries about how to write his second book, tries to conceive a child (first artificially and then in the old fashioned way) with his female best friend, deals with an ambiguously fatal heart condition, simultaneously appreciates and loathes NYC's co-op/ethic food culture, goes to parties at artist colonies, lets an occupy wall street protester use his shower... the sort of experiences that one could imagine almost anyone living in a large city in the last half decade might have.

But what makes this book stand out from the endless and endlessly dull pack of other "slacker-ish young person who lives in New York" novels (which has become something of an entire genre these days), is the depth and calm of his thoughts. Lerner has a meditative style he's crafted on his own, he is completely unafraid to have his narrator lose himself in a chain of gorgeous, uber-modern reveries about the world we live in, about our perpetual sense of impending crisis, our tangled attempts to live morally and ethically in a time when the ugly truth behind even the most well-intentioned product or practice is just one smart phone search away. And above all, what it means to think on, care about, and create art in the midst of all of these dicey perspectives. His willingness to grapple, sincerely and deeply, with the impossible complexities of issues like these is what makes him, in this reviewers opinion, one of the finest American fiction writers working today.

That being said, 10:04 does have one weakness: Lerner suddenly includes a short story in the middle that was originally published in the New Yorker, and that story has all the typical lack of imagination and brilliance your average New Yorker story does, but which the rest of 10:04 contains in spades. It seems meant to be this sort of cute meta-fictional disruption showing how the narrator (who is not Lerner but sort of also is) fictionalizes his life (and by extension how the actual Lerner does) and the lives of those around him. Maybe there is some brilliant theoretical/aesthetic justification for it; I don't really care because it disrupts a 240 page novel with 20 pages of pathetically neutered pap that reads all the worse considering how scintillating all of the prose surrounding it tends to be. It's simply an authorial decision that doesn't really work.

That single flaw aside, there are many parts of 10:04 that made me actually giggle out loud with the casual brilliance and the sorts of gorgeous musings that refuse easy answers which Lerner seems to have basically mastered. Highly recommended.
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on September 21, 2014
Ben Lerner writes beautifully. No matter how you might feel about 10:04: A Novel as a novel, you'll find the writing brilliant. It's writing you glide along on. It's so smooth, so effortless, you forget you are reading and just experience what the fictional Ben experiences. This, that the words from time to time disappear so well are they selected and organized, is the superlative strength of the novel. You'll find going from Lerner to an ordinary novelist, even a literary one, a bit jarring.

However, if you must identify with a character to enjoy a novel, 10:04 might present something of challenge. That is unless you happen to be self-absorbed and puzzled by almost everything and, a big one, always trying to orient yourself in a world that may seem to change dramatically but which really only inches along, so that after a year of events, some pretty monumental, you end up not much farther from where you started.

Over the course of the novel's 240 pages, Lerner covers lots of territory, while leaving New York City only once, for Marfa, Texas. There are the hurricanes Irene and Sandy bracketing the events, worry over his illness (a potential aortic aneurysm) and his problematic sperm, his relationships with his maybe girlfriend and the woman who enlists him as a sperm donor, his tutelage of a young Hispanic boy that sends him running in circles about the degree of fatherhood he's cut out for. In the end, nothing much changes, except his decision to disregard what he told his agent he would write about and for which his publisher advanced him a significant sum in favor of what you will read, if you read 10:04.

And there in lies the problem some may have with Lerner. Unless you are young in the present, you may find him, the fictional Lerner, pretentious and self-absorbed to the point of suffocation. Otherwise, you might be like my son, who devoured the book in a night, and recommended it enthusiastically; it will speak to your own questions about life, change, and where you fit, and, perhaps, reconcile you to the incrementality of life.

Finally, having praised Lerner's prose, I should leave you with a sample, as it by itself warrants your reading time. There's no better passage than this, as it encapsulates the point of the whole thing, and, like many passages, provides fuel for mulling:

"If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred."
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on February 5, 2015
This book started off interestingly enough. However, it quickly turned into a pretentious, over written and overly self admiring piece. I thought the poetry was awful; he just retold some of his story in line form with no poetic tone. I became curious about certain things in the novel, about whether they were real or fictional. I looked up Marfa on wikipedia and found that Lerner's description of the lights was taken almost verbatim from wikipedia! I don't mind learning new vocabulary as I read, but it seemed that Lerner had certain words that he overused in such a way that I wondered whether a friend had dared him to use it more than once. "I'll give you $10 for every time you use the word passerine."

I've been saving the worst offence for last: Marfan syndrome is a dominant gene which is passed on to 50% of offspring. With the increasing age of the "parents" and the expenses and long odds of fertility treatments, why would anyone want to use his sperm?
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on November 17, 2014
I wish I were erudite enough to give a good explanation of why I liked this book. Basically, I found it stimulating and abstract. If you are looking for a straightforward narrative, this is not the book for you. I think you just have to let go and take the ride and not think too much about what it all means or how it fits together, although it did feel like it came together at the end.

Lerner does sling around a lot of vocabulary words--thank goodness for the Kindle's interactive dictionary!--but it mostly seems in keeping with the character. If you've read any David Foster Wallace, you can't get annoyed at the vocabulary used here. It pales in comparison.

The writing was excellent. Nice to find something different out there that is still readable.
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on March 20, 2015
Reviews from credible institutions had called this work of "serious literature" "ingenious", "spectacular", and a "masterpiece". I was pulled into the trance, hoping to partake in this earth-shattering cultural event. However, it soon enough dawned on me that I'd seen this all before - in the praise of Birdman.

That off-beat film starring Michael Keaton is about a washed up superhero movie actor making a comeback via a serious Broadway play. It was a pleasant enough affair but wound up winning the Oscar for Best Picture - just as Shakespeare in Love did years earlier over a decidedly more deserving and, as time has proven, enduring Saving Private Ryan.

I didn't realize the psychological game at play back then - I thought these were just profound artistic voters who knew better than I what really constituted the best picture. But now I realize it's just ego - actors love a story about actors.

And, so it is with 10:04: Writers love writers who write about writing. It speaks to them. They hang on its every word because this is a reflection of the rather meandering, observational life they've chosen.

10:04 is like a painting whose creator was more interested in pushing new boundaries of structure than in pushing new boundaries of insight. Art critics embrace painters who find a new way to make a canvas come to life, and so it is with writers as well. They love a writer who will try different structures, unique wordplay, as the goal in itself. As McMillan said in its review, "Don't even worry about classifying it; just let Lerner's language sweep you off your feet." NPR said, "Bravo! Lerner obviously loves playing with language, stretching sentences out, folding them in on themselves, and making readers laugh out loud with the unexpected turns his paragraphs take."

It's all about the language. In fact, Lerner himself even said in the New York Times, about the real art galleries referenced in his novel, "They're these huge laboratories for all the different contradictory notions of what art is".

For me, that's not enough. In fact, I'll say it, I think it's the easy way out. You don't have to structure a story arc with dynamic interactions and complex characters with this approach. The characters, aside from the narrator, are pretty paper thin in this novel. They serve more as props than fleshed out beings. There are brilliant passages to be sure, but a writer with such a natural gift for words need simply observe a series of events to be labeled profound in this type of fiction. I've seen the same style used by the more alt / less literary god author Sam Pink, known for his brilliant observations of the thoughts humans have but never articulate. After a while, even his great insights blend together across novels as a man just walking Chicago.

I fully acknowledge that I may well have missed something big about this novel. I went back and read these glowing reviews to a greater extent -- to try and discern the meaning they'd found in this seemingly banal story of a writer, coming off unexpected success from his first novel, trying to write his second while helping a friend get knocked up as a big storm looms.

But it might just be that I have different tastes. For example, McMillan again describes as "ingenious" ("I do not think that word means what you think it means.") the humor in a scene where The Author attempts to make a deposit in a sperm bank. It was mildly entertaining; nothing really groundbreaking. I assume the sperm-bank deposit is part of the play on time that is at the heart of the Back to the Future inspired name 10:04, whereby a man sadly ejecting himself into a cup for reproduction is making a deposit on the future and not just on his stomach (sorry).

That's a nice play on convention, but does it rise to "brilliance"? I thought DeLillo observed time better in Point Omega. Lerner makes a number of interesting observations, many really having nothing to do with the narrative and just seeming like observations the author had on his mind - like the shuttle explosion / Reagan response using poetry. That full well could have been an essay in itself - and a really good, interesting essay.

NPR described the plot itself as "way outside the box". I'd say China Mieville's plots are way outside the box. Maybe even Vonnegut's qualify as being outside the box, but a writer writing about writing is pretty much what a lot of writers' workshop grads who've spent much of their lives in the walls of academia do. I just didn't see the novelty in it, but rest assured the Best Fiction nominations have come rolling in just like with Birdman in the movies.
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In film, the notion of the time doubling on itself is introduced in "Back to the Future". At 10:04, the time traveling car returned to its driver's past, and the remaining film and its sequels concerned the ramifications of changing the past and destroying the present. This book proposes an interesting play on this idea: how do the changing permutations of memory alter our view of the past and of our reality today?

This premise is toyed with delightfully in this novel. At times the whole time continuum is as frothy as the foam on coffee. Other times the author struggles mightily with the notion of a twilight anesthesia not preventing pain but its memory. He has found that he has a potentially fatal atrial defect of unknown cause, and he sometimes struggles with the threat in the idle, trifling ways we all find to survive a day. Will a store be different if his book is never published? Will he not be a father to a child whose absence will resonate? How different would his friends be? The concerns skate under the surface, profound but somehow not vital.

In any stream of consciousness, the author is faced with the sheer weight of the myriad thoughts given to each day. In fact the main character has written a story in which the interior weighing of time is found to complicate his story to its detriment. Lerner has met this task with witty and literate aplomb, even avoiding working the "Back to the Future" past the point it can easily bear.I am delighted by the deceptive lightness of tone that brings the reader into that circle of time which memory weaves. This book is a lovely work that I am delighted to recommend.
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on September 27, 2014
"Atocha" was an amazing debut, and 10:04 reads like the author managed to compress a long, distinguished career (yeah it's kind of a quote) into a couple of years. Fitting for an epic about fluidity of time, truth, water, etc. etc.

It reads like a multi-volume epic Hemingwayed down to 240 pages. So it may take you weeks or even months to read. Enjoy every moment and every word. The book bends on itself in at least seven different dimensions, or maybe even 7.44 different dimensions.

If you're like me, you're not even reading this review. I only read negative ones, since the positive ones are mostly fake and redundant. I don't want anyone to buy the book on the strength of its Amazon positive reviews (perhaps on the weakness of its negative ones, yes).

10:04 is one of the best books I've ever read. And my other favorite authors are Bellow, Chekhov, Cheever, Munro, Curtis, D'Ambrosio, Lodato, Nelson, Franzen, Saunders, ...
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on September 26, 2014
I am a huge fan of "Leaving the Atocha Station" Great writing, cleaver phrases and syntax. With 10:04, I almost gave up after the first few pages, but persisted, waiting for something...anything.. that was worthwhile...either for some kind of actual story, or, for the writer to find a clear line of thought. It seems to me, that the subject of "Atocha" has fallen prey to complete self-doubt and aimlessness. The writing is about nothing consequential; in fact I find it trivial.. For example: "I caught myself shifting my weight a little from foot to foot as the cell phone made its simulated click, something i did as a child when I had to go to the bathroom, and I had an involuntary memory of wetting myself at the Topeka Zoo at four, having refused to go when I had the chance, the humiliating warmth spreading down my leg, darkening my corduroys." (p. 150.) Solipsistic, self absorbed. Who cares?
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on September 7, 2014
I was a big fan of Leaving the Atocha Station but this one seems rather slapped together by comparison. The pastiche (a child's book, a long poem, invented letters...) felt lazy, like padding to bring up the word count; I found myself doing a lot of skimming. Lerner is still frequently interesting to read, full of offbeat observations, wry self-observations, but overall I was disappointed, even in the writing itself, which often seemed slapdash.
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on November 3, 2014
loved me some a-toke-a-Station but found this one's solipsistic charms started to wear thin after a few chapters. Geoff Dyer is better at laughing at his ponderousness, Nicholson Baker is just funnier in his noticings. Ben Lerner's got serious chops though and I want him to tackle something more specific next time--he needs something to do for once beside the usual flanneurish stuff--dissing art openings, doubting his authenticity, kinda being into this or that girl etc...
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