It is a rare skill, crafting prose that reads like stream of consciousness, and Ben Lerner has it. He's as smooth as W.G. Sebald, witnessing the world go by, detouring into elegant loops of memory and self-doubt, then returning, effortlessly.
This kind of writing reflects our own best selves: an internal narrator who is polished and thoughtful, with wit, humility, a broad vocabulary and an internal processing speed to put it all together in a flash. Writers are drawn to this kind of work, perhaps because we see the connection between this flow and the act of writing itself.
Which leads us to Lerner's appeal. His debut, the autobiographical novel "Leaving the Atocha Station" (2011), was a surprise indie hit, pushing Lerner from highly accomplished young poet to ascendant novelist published in the New Yorker. That single magazine story landed him a major book deal, as he explains in the beginning of his second novel, "10:04."
He's celebrating the deal with his agent. "'How exactly will you expand the story?' she'd asked, far look in her eyes because she was calculating tip. 'I'll project myself into several futures simultaneously,' I should have said, 'a minor tremor in my hand; I'll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.'"
It's all there, then: This is what he'll do, this is how he'll do it, this is how he's positioning himself as a writer. If his riposte is all l'esprit d'escalier (the wit of the staircase — a perfect response, formed too late for the moment), it's still articulated perfectly for us.
In his story, which does indeed branch into various futures, the writer lives and teaches in New York City, dates an artist (variously, Alena and Hannah), has possible medical issues (Marfan syndrome, concerning the heart, or a meningioma, located in the brain) and is asked by his 36-year-old best friend (Alex/Liza) to father her child.
It's clear from the prose what makes him a good genetic prospect: He's blazingly intelligent, creative and sensitive to the world. Despite his inwardly voiced insecurities, the evidence shows he's engaging and charming. The relationship with Alex/Liza is long-standing, committed and platonic (mostly), but despite the sperm request, his role as a possible father is oddly undefined.
This is how he figures it: "she assumes you're too scattered and scared to intervene dramatically.... [you] will never go totally AWOL, but you're also sufficiently infantile and self-involved to cede all the substantial parenting to her. She chose you for your deficiencies, not in spite of them."
We're not meant to take this as fact but as something close to it, an adjacent narrative of self. Sebald called this "documentary fiction." And Lerner has deftly defended his own "self-involvement" by admitting it, or by admitting that his best friend perceives it, in what is already understood to be not memoir but a variation on the truth.
What all this knowing self-deprecation masks is the fact that he doesn't try very hard to give his Alex/Liza a voice of her own.
She comes alive mostly in the story that was published in the New Yorker, but there's no need for readers to run to the magazine's archives. After the first part of "10:04" explains that the story generated this book, the second section is that story itself. Clever metafiction folding back on itself. (But could it also be a way to plump up a slight novel?)
The book stretches from two New York hurricanes to a desert writer's residency. In the artist enclave of Marfa, Texas, he writes poetry and racks up a few slightly hallucinatory experiences.
Despite all the time he spends neurotically parsing his neuroses, he manages to connect with people in the real world. He has friends, mentors, a gifted, nonchalant girlfriend. He tries to help two young men who appear to be on the brink. Their near-craziness shows how sane the narrator is, or maybe they demonstrate how tenuous the line is between OK and not OK. Maybe they're doing both.
"10:04" is all about overlapping possibilities. It takes its title from the 1985 film "Back to the Future" — it's the time the clock stopped, the moment when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) must return to each time he travels through time.
Similarly, in the book, the writer returns to moments we'd seen before. The conversation with his agent that appeared in the book's first pages is reenacted much later, and the second time it's less perfect, less clever. This is another metafictional move, showing the artifice behind the polished work.
Instead of plot, the book has riffs and themes: octopuses, Christa McAuliffe, doctors' offices, possible citywide blackouts, stories about identity and fatherhood. He jumps from high to low: There are ruminations on Christian Marclay's video art piece "The Clock" as well as the complete contents of a book Lerner helped an elementary school student write.
The narrative is completely wrapped up in ersatz Lerner's perceptions, which tend to flit through ideas and then return to himself. This is the hazard of the stream-of-consciousness story, that the self overwhelms all else. In other writers' hands — like Sebald, or Teju Cole — the ideas blossom and grow weighty. In the end, "10:04" struggles to find that balance; instead, we are left with a very artful construction of Lerner himself.
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Faber and Faber: 256 pp., $25