Only Disconnect: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

September 16, 2014 | 8 books mentioned 19 4 min read


Ben Lerner can’t possibly be the persona that inhabits his fiction, the one who surfaces fleetingly in the jagged word clusters that make up his poetry. This shifty, brooding character might share some basic reportable details with his creator, but the difference between them, between writer and work, serves as the primary tension in all of Lerner’s writing. If works of art were about something, instead of existing self-sufficiently for themselves, this is what Lerner’s work would be about: the chasm between a life lived and a thing made; the discouragement one suffers when trying to find one in the other.

covercovercoverWith his second novel, 10:04, Lerner has decisively passed from the abbey of poets, who trained him in these stark aesthetic distinctions, into the bustling town of fiction. (If 10:04 were about something, it would be about this passage.) His poetic pedigree draws attention like the priest’s white collar worn at a pub. At 35, he is still very much a younger poet, precociously so, ten years after an award-winning first book, The Lichtenberg Figures, followed in 2006 by Angle of Yaw, a National Book Award finalist. He edited a literary journal and received a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain, and though it is technically impossible to determine precisely how much the latter experience contributed to Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) deals entirely with that kind of experience abroad.

On his fellowship in Spain, the young Topeka-bred poet Adam Gordon worries over his incapacity for being profoundly affected by art. He stares at paintings to no avail. When Spanish translations of his poems are read at a Madrid art gallery, he is bafflingly applauded.  The better his Spanish gets, the less poetic he seems around his Spanish friends. Leaving the Atocha Station, named after an early John Ashbery poem, amounts to a deeper disillusionment than in the standard artist novel, where the audience refuses to sanction the artist’s naïve ambitions. In Lerner’s discursive first-person, a provincial romantic fervor is lost on Adam as he examines the “disconnect” between his voided encounters with artworks and “the claims made on their behalf.”

covercoverLerner, on the other hand, has good company among a faction of likeminded American novelists and critics who bristle at the hidebound claims they insist are responsible for an embarrassing profusion of substandard literary product. Simple, re-teachable tropes reign because they are market-tested, while advanced and otherwise marginalized techniques are branded Difficult, because the new is never as easily digestible, or salable, as the familiar. These prose writers—anyone who wasn’t appalled by David Shields’ Reality Hunger—admire the poetry community for valuing their progressives, thus keeping pace over the last century with the vanguards of other media. In both of Lerner’s novels, there is a sense of his sentences catching up, unfurling, distending, pursuing the unclaimed experience or the unexplained artwork. He structures his fiction around passages drawn from his growing body of criticism—studies of John Ashbery and damaged or “totaled art”—as well as the writings of others, like Daniel Zalewski’s essay on Christian Marclay, designer of the 24-hour video montage The Clock, which is given a prominent thematic role in 10:04.

Collage, when used in Lerner’s novels, doesn’t result in the patchwork effect applied by a proponent like Shields in How Literature Saved My Life. Lerner’s novelist sensibility is to cohere and blend, the way Norman Mailer incorporated the shards of Gary Gilmore’s prison letters into the grand cathedral window of The Executioner’s Song. The found objects discovered in 10:04—photographs, poems, epigraphs—are characters that, above more conventional plotlines in the novel, galvanize the contemplative momentum.

coverThe crown jewel of these objects—the antagonist—is a short story published by Lerner (but also his protagonist, Ben) in The New Yorker. (Other excerpts have appeared in The Paris Review and Harper’s.) For the poet in the novel, this story is a moment of concession, a means to the curse of a six-figure book deal. For Lerner, it’s a reconciliation of language. The sequence of untitled sonnet-length poems that make up The Lichtenberg Figures degrades linearly from more coherent, finished announcements to scattershot surrealist amalgams. It is more rationally conservative, more reasonable, than John Ashbery’s debut, Some Trees, published nearly fifty years earlier. Or maybe it could be seen as progressively seeking territory beyond the old familiar conservative-progressive continuum of styles.  (“Perhaps what remains of innovation/is a conservativism at peace with contradiction,” Lerner half-kids.)

coverHis most recent book of poems, Mean Free Path, makes use of even shorter overlapping units or strips, fused into nine-line stanzas. The barrage of interruptions conspire to strengthen or stress the precious attractions between words. At this threshold of coherence, Lerner maintains a formal unity of concept and appearance. This formal awareness is a constant presence throughout his novels, always holding the reader at an honest critical distance from the words—critical in both senses, skeptical and art-loving.

Adam Gordon, unbeknownst to him, takes us on a journey through stages of suggestion and communication, led by Lerner’s hand. His Spanish, at first, is lacking. The dialogue is paraphrased and indeterminate. Facial cues go unrecognized or misinterpreted. Adam’s mystique thrives on meaningful silences his acquaintances run with, or so he thinks. He changes his story. First, his mother is dead. Then, he says she’s dead because she’s ill. His father is a fascist. Adam is less a poet and more like one of Lerner’s poems.

coverIn Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, he suggests that “the voices in so-called ‘nonfictions’ were themselves artful impostures, arrangements of sentences…that mimicked the presence of a human being offering sincerely intended and honestly useful guidance into this or that complicated area of human thought or experience.” It is the fictional element in nonfiction, Lethem reminds us, that makes the autobiographical question moot. But starting from words isn’t necessarily starting from scratch. This I think is the genuine motivation for collage, and also pastiche. Nothing new under the sun, but also infinite combinations and riffs.  Lerner’s new poet-cum-novelist stops worrying about the novel. Lerner clearly loves it.

is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, who now lives on Long Island. His essays have also appeared on Full Stop.


  1. I have read this entire review, and yet I have absolutely no idea if you think the book is any good or what it is about. A work of art is usually about something. For example, Moby-Dick is about a whale. What is 10:04 about?

  2. It is amazing how little presence 10:04 has in this article (certainly this isn’t a review, is it?). I read Leaving the Atocha Station after a book seller suggested it. It was promising – even maybe almost hinted at the profound. There was certainly some fantastic writing in there, and I appreciated a lot of the blurry images he seemed to bring into a nearly-visible apparition. But it was also undercooked, and perhaps meaningless (and, goodness me, I still have enough hope in something to think that life isn’t quite meaningless). I often felt as though the book was an over-extended short story that, unlike the works of so many great storywriters, didn’t have enough sense of what it was trying to say to be concise. Or that the book was a poem that refused to be a poem – hinting at forms and shapes that end up being entirely ethereal, which is something that poems do so well but stories often fail to accomplish. Ultimately, I wasn’t impressed but I thought that it was rather promising.

    But, I’ve been trying to make sense of why Lerner’s second novel might be worth picking up and reading. None of the internet jibber jabber about the book has been able to tell me why. It almost appears as though people are talking about the book because others are talking about the book.

  3. You are supposed to read this novel because the publishing world has decided that Ben Lerner represents you, and thus, what he thinks and says are precisely what you would think and say if you could say it like he does. Ben Lerner is supposed to represent the fractured psyche of an entire generation, if said generation was composed entirely of smirky white men with Ivy League educations who can afford to live in Brooklyn. That’s why you’re supposed to read this book. Because what is happening to you where you are is local, and, as such, is not of much importance. But what is happening to Ben Lerner (book deals, dinners at fancy restaurants, meaningless sex, etc.) is happening in and around NYC, and, as such, is of universal importance.

  4. There is no way the “writer” of this “review” actually read 10:04.

    Actual reviews of the book indicate it’s yet another yawn-inducing entry in the ever-popular “writers writing about writing in Brooklyn” genre.

    I’d like to tender a proposal to CMax: for every “review” of a “writers writing about writing in Brooklyn” novel you post to the site, you book-end it with reviews of indie-press debut novels not set in NYC and not reviewed in the NYT and the other usual suspects.

    I anxiously await your response.

  5. I think the general bafflement in responses here comes from the fact that the reviewer, for all his well-deserved success elsewhere, has forgotten an essential lesson from his Freshman Comp days: The E in the MEAL plan, ‘evidence.’ He offers no examples of these sentences that so remarkably behave like the most fantastical objects of quantum physics, no illustration of how this vaguely alluded-to sonnet cycle manages to disintegrate transcendentally into some marvelous ‘surrealist amalgam.’ I have no sweet clue what it means for a sentence or a book to perform these beautifully summarized acrobatics, or even what the words that summarize them are supposed to mean.

    This kind of writing does nothing to pique my interest in the book. Nor does it help to parry accusations that the reviewer never read it.

  6. Whenever someone is grinding an ax, you can be sure he can’t hear anyone skulking behind him with yet another dulled weapon. There is no artistic reason to dismiss a novel because it is set self consciously in Brooklyn. Just a book ago, Lerner was a rare hit for Coffee House Press. Now he’s an establishment goon. Let’s just pelt everyone who experiences success with bitter tomatoes and hope we never succeed.

    10:04 is a great novel but it is difficult to describe. Its metafictional conceit is many tendriled and affecting. Leaving the Atocha Station was in part about a poet who was ambivalent about achieving the “success” of a Fulbright, his merits in receiving it or the merits of leading an artistic life, and 10:04 builds on that theme. The narrator can’t believe that following the path he has followed – writing poetry, taking drugs – has led him to this, a 6-figure advance, adulation, and if not for a health scare, not a care in the world. Of course, his ambivalence stems significantly from his fear of being a sellout – and in fact 10:04 is about him deciding, despite the princely advance, not to write a commercial novel, the sort of antiestablishment gesture that you’d think would be appreciated a bit more.

    Indeed, despite the hefty fee critical plaudits, there is no way a novel like 10:04, with no plot, nonlinear storytelling and unsympathetic characters, will ever earn the advance back. Lerner’s narrator is incredulous as he puts together this book – seemingly haphazardly, seemingly putting into it whatever he wants – could the world really work this way? He really can thumb his nose at his benefactors and they will publish his novel for his trouble? Of course, I’ve made it seem much more straightforward and less compelling than it is, the book is subtle, careful and entertaining.

    That kind of writing is not for everyone, and it’s understandable that some people will dismiss the book, but they had ought to read it first, and read more deeply than to take note of the setting and the narrator’s gender and skin color. If it had been published by Coffee House Press again, there’d be fewer sparks flying, and maybe, a few more people might actually be listening.

  7. Jacques

    Your description of 10:04 almost put me to sleep. The setting itself isn’t the problem; but it’s indicative of a much larger problem that is pandemic in contemporary fiction: an utter lack of imagination. The world of Brooklyn writing is such a bubble. It’s so far removed from the real world that it should be its own genre: something resembling sci fi/fantasy. I just can’t support this brand of navel gazing, nor should any writer who cares about fiction as a whole.

    As I’ve said before, there’s absolutely nothing at stake here. Not every novel needs to be War & Peace; however, we’re setting the bar terribly low when “deciding [whether] to write a commercial novel” is the central conflict. The question I’ve yet to see any writer of the Brookyln-writers-writing-about-writing-in-Brooklyn genre answer is this: Why should anyone care about this?

    How can we expect literature to continue to matter in the world when the world no longer matters in our literature?

  8. But what you don’t seem to understand is that living in Brooklyn and worrying about whether or not you should give in to commercial interests IS the pre-eminent question of our time. And then, on top of that, figuring out that the only way to avoid giving in to commercial interests is by writing a Sebaldian hydrid text and pocketing the money anyway is one of the great heroic acts of our time. Because, you see, the ability to bend inward on oneself, this is an ability not many people in the greater NYC area have at the moment, because if it was they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves, so when someone performs even the slightest psycho-contortions, well, they should be honored accordingly. You would think that the whole Writer-Writing-About-Writing thing would be played out by now, but, lo, aha! You would be wrong. Lack of imagination is a not a defect, it is a survival mechanism for those who know that using your imagination is the first step towards base-line empathy. We can’t have any of that, now can we. So listen, just buy Ben Lerner’s book, okay? He needs the money more than you do. Have you ever seen an Ivy League graduate forced into penury? It’s ghastly. Plus, they get all homicidal and/or suicidal, and that’s not good for the rest of us. We already have enough pissed-off, dissatisfied white men running around, we don’t need another. In an alternate universe Ben Lerner would be on the cover of New York Magazine, holding a gun to his head, with the headline reading: But This Man’s Book Or He Will Shoot Himself.

  9. “There is no artistic reason to dismiss a novel because it is set self consciously in Brooklyn.”

    Familiarity breeds contempt; the self-conscious Brooklyn narrator is the adult equivalent of an angst-laden vampire. 10:04 may be an excellent novel, but there is much to be said for novelty in attracting an audience. Reading about New York only attracts unfavourable comparisons to the far more interesting New York that far more interesting writers wrote about in the past. And you can hardly fault anyone for being suspicious of New York writers these days, given their propensity to lean hard on the city to cover their shortcomings (Foer + Krauss being prime offenders). Ultimately this type of fiction is a particular genre like any other, very rarely breaking new ground, and appealing primarily to existing fans. You are basically telling someone that not wanting to read about wizards is no reason to avoid reading fantasy novels. Well, guess what–fantasy is full of fucking wizards!

  10. “Progressive” is not necessarily better, and traditional, whatever that is, is not necessarily better, and certainly “market-tested” has no value.

    It all depends on whether it’s good work.

  11. If the beef is that too darn many literary writers live in Brooklyn, I’ve got no beef with that. And I won’t lie, there are definitely parts of 10:04 that tread that all-too-familiar privileged liberal’s turf. But as far as the stakes in 10:04, I think they are high enough. Every book can’t be about genocide.

    I happen to like the sort of writing Lerner does, where he sees the same world I do, but sheds a somewhat different light on it. I’m not a Brooklyn hipster or a literary author but I do live a comfortable and mostly meaningless middle-class life. I like the way Lerner’s self examination is similar to, but different from, my own. I also liked Adelle Waldman’s novel, and what could be more Brooklynistic than that one? Even though I don’t live there or live that life, I learned some interesting things about people, and about myself, in the process of reading both.

    What Lerner is doing in 10:04 is examining the imperfections in himself, morphing them subtly and not so subtly into other imperfections, or even into perfections – and most of all, he is playing with the reader, who spends the whole time reading the novel (and LTAS as well) balanced on a fence, not sure what is real and what is a mirror. The central question in realistic first-person novels always is, is this real? Did that really happen? Who is really writing this book? How is he really different from the character? For writers especially, I think what he is up to is terrific and confounding. And because I feel that way, I also feel like anyone who preempts the book because it’s a Brooklyn navel gazer is profiting little from the sneering. YMMV.

  12. The book is about time and the process and the business of making / selling / dealing with art. For fucks sake.

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