Top positive review
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Almost completely brilliant, Lerner is a funny, cooly confident and gorgeously thoughtful writer. Parts of it had me giggling.
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.