Ben Lerner
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Buy *10:04* by Ben Lerneronline

Ben Lerner
256 pages
October 2015
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Yes, all the praise is deserved. Ben Lerner, author of the acclaimed Leaving the Atocha Station, once again stuns readers with his artistry, unique vocabulary usage, and unexpected story. 10:04 is one of the few books I have debated immediately rereading. Not because I had fallen in love with certain characters (although I did indeed like many of Lerner’s creations and wanted to continue following their lives), but because I wanted to savor his writing. I also needed to completely untangle which sections were the narrator’s reality and which parts were alternative reality, story proposals being suggested by the main character, or his completed writings.

It took him a long time to say he didn’t know how to explain it, that if he knew how to explain it she would be walking toward them now, not Hannah. I’ve divided myself into two people. A cut across worlds. Footfall on gravel, then crushed shells, silence when she reached the sand.”
10:04 is primarily set in New York City. Lerner evokes a sense of place effortlessly with passages about a grocery co-op, the narrator riding the subway with his young mentor student and then navigating the Museum of Natural History, protagonists walking miles through post-Hurricane Sandy boroughs... As the book begins, the narrator (who remains nameless throughout the work, an erudite everyman) has received acclaim for his recent writing and learned of a potentially fatal heart condition. He thinks about his upcoming writer’s residency and wonders if he should honor his best friend’s request to help her get pregnant through nontraditional means. When the narrator learns troubling information concerning his beloved mentors Natali and Bernard, readers get a chance to meet a younger version of this somewhat-celebrated author.

Jonathan Franzen has stated that Lerner is “original in every sentence”, a compliment most readers should agree with. When describing possible love at first sight, Lerner writes:

For the rest of the evening I milled around the reception waiting for an opportunity to insinuate myself back into her company, but somehow it never came, or I never had the nerve to act. Every time I heard her laugh or succeeded in picking out her voice from the general din or saw her move gracefully through a room, my whole body started, then I felt as if I were falling, a sensation akin to the myoclonic twitch that, just as you are drifting off to sleep, wakes you violently; standing there among the first editions, I was convinced it was the shudder of fate.
The narrator is extremely self-aware--befitting a writer of fiction and poetry. After his latest story is picked up by The New Yorker (based on bits and pieces of confidential info reworked to almost remain anonymous), he proceeds to illustrate just how far an idea can play with a receptive mind; how far an author can meld a once-heard, dinner-time tale to create a larger work. (Don’t worry; best-friend Alex does call the narrator out on his borrowing of her life details.)

Lerner repeats himself, intentionally, throughout the book. “Back to the Future” is not only the main character’s favorite movie of a past era, it is also representative of themes in the novel. “The Clock” movie also engages readers’ imaginings. Brooklyn Bridge references pepper the story, pulling in the past (as do Whitman's writings) and highlighting modern day in a metropolis. The Challenger disaster and a particular Reagan speech lead to musings about loss, while Joseph Kony is the ongoing face of evil. These linked passages and ruminations successfully present the narrator’s nature.

Dissecting the use of the poem “High Flight,” our storyteller reveals:

I loved the idea that a poem written by a young man weeks before his fiery death would be quoted by a speechwriter and read by a president and felt in the chests of a million American children in the wake of another aerial disaster. It showed poetry’s power to circulate among bodies and temporalities, to transcend the contingencies of its authorship.
Poet William Bronk, a favorite of lauded professor Bernard, is also mentioned several times in the novel. Bronk’s verses challenging conventional views of time and place are the perfect supplement to Lerner’s work.

Another device this writer utilizes is the occasional photograph and drawing. Since they are sparingly employed, these illustrations definitely work to draw attention to specific sections and topics.

10:04 will have you admiring Lerner’s words, smiling at the quirkiness of human nature, and thinking about what is real and what is the result of a talented writer’s imagination. Not surprisingly, Lerner is a poet as well as a novelist. He has been nominated for, and received, numerous awards.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Leslie Nichols Raith, 2016

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