The Unusually Associative Cyclonic System of Ben Lerners 10:04
(Faber and Faber, 2014)
Would you know what I mean if instead of conventional plot summary I presented a key quotation from Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04 followed by a series of associated specifics separated by semi-colons? “An unusually large cyclonic system with a warm core was approaching New York.” A baby octopus massaged 500 times settling like an alien intelligence inside the narrator’s stomach; after celebrating a strong six-figure book deal, looking out the High Line’s window on Tenth Avenue transforming traffic into a silent, real-time Koyaanisqatsi; an onrushing airborne climatic event that, like its art world predecessor Duchamp, elevates the value of everyday objects while it unites the discrete and multitudinous “me” of the masses into something more like a festive “we”; studying dinosaur mass extinction as a reminder of humanity’s future; the distribution network required to place a can of coffee on a Whole Foods shelf in Union Square; ultrasound imaging of the heart and, later, a new life; the tentacles of streets and subways; fireworks and falling cigarette embers; the space shuttle Challenger explosion (“the branching plumes of smoke as its components fell back to earth”) memorialized by an unattributed plagiarized phrase the rhythm of which may have inspired the author to write poetry; the amorphous Occupy Movement occurring over there somewhere; the willful disorientation of the senses with alcohol and weed elevating dialogue to poetry; an Institute for Totaled Art collecting damaged work deemed worthless; the disorganization of the Park Slope co-op where a woman who has always identified as half-Lebanese tells the story of how she found out she’s not half-Lebanese by blood; Judd’s boxes in Marfa suggesting the horror and heft of World War II; Whitman nursing soldiers during the Civil War; another once-in-a-lifetime airborne climatic event, larger this time; the narrator attending to a troubled poetry student suffering from DeLilloean pathological disorganization; first-person singular POV (“I”), sometimes envisioned as third-person singular (“he” or “she”), conflicted about its instinct to assume the first-person plural (“we”).
I associated the baby octopus that appears in the novel’s first sentence with the blastulablob in Gravity’s Rainbow, a giant octopus-related metaphor for the interconnected multi-tentacled mess of life, expressed in streams of inky language, from which a rocket leaps in a gorgeous transcendent arc. In 10:04, although a transcendent arc isn’t explicitly acknowledged, the recurring image of the coordinated (or to use a Lerner keyword: proprioceptive) spatial sprawl of a cyclonic octopus-like shape is disrupted, challenged, or crisscrossed by time travel, or at least a sense of fluid continuity among past, present, and future. Blurred metaphors for time and space are associated with blended dualities of art and life, fiction and non-fiction, friend and girlfriend. As in Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press, 2011), the author/narrator conflation endures in 10:04. In tone and approach, the new novel reads like a “dilated” (a synonym for “expanded” or “elaborated” Lerner often selects) sequel in which Ben, the narrator of 10:04, comments on the surprising critical success of his first novel set in Spain, as well as speaking and sounding like its narrator, Adam Gordon.
Do you know what I mean if I say the lucid associative blur of all these coordinated and interpenetrating ideas and images makes for excellent reading if you’re willing to flex your associative intelligence? Associative intelligence unites disparate elements, revealing connective metaphors (tendrils, arteries, bridges) as a consequence of the associative act. A balance of IQ and emotional intelligence is usually preferred in literary novels, but 10:04 suggests that associative intelligence, unleashed yet controlled, can work narrative wonders as well. If narrative progression reliant on associative movement hopes to build momentum and accrete significance, it must be controlled. Free association is fine as long as you bring it back to the launching point now and then. Otherwise it seems like madness—for example, Calvin, the student the narrator meets toward the novel’s end whose web of associations resembles the activities of a psychoactive-addled spider. But Lerner remembers his themes. He consistently reintroduces and varies them. His control of a top-notch associative intelligence, the organic and generally elegant intricacy of its patterning, satisfies.
But more so, a sense of the actual city—stray images and off-hand overheard phrases (“Chill, I’m basically there”)—persuaded me. So often it seemed like the author was struck by something perceived on the street he jotted down ASAP. Other than “unseasonably warm,” the most commonly repeated phrase involved his narrator perceiving the rearrangement of the world around himself. Lerner describes what it feels like when the artist becomes a cyclonic system and whatever slips past the dilated eye demands inclusion in one’s work. Reality overflows with potential art, fact is omni-available for fiction, even if this fiction is an explicitly stated blur of fact and fiction; autobiography and invention; poetry, images, and prose. Here’s how the narrator describes his intention for the novel that will become 10:04: “a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.”
The warm core in the cyclonic system of associations consists of “the winning and humorous” repositioning of details presented as fact in one chapter and fiction the next. In one chapter he has heart troubles; in the next chapter it’s an asymptomatic mass. Images of embers falling from a post-coital cigarette smoked on a fire escape, gas lamps, “the looming intensities” of Manhattan’s skyline appear as fact and fiction in successive chapters. The warmth also derives from a quiet laugh sustained throughout thanks to tone and the explicit meta-fictional audacity of his intention to “do it all,” per the advice of a distinguished writer with whom he over-imbibes at a dinner celebrating an even more distinguished writer they discount.
Particularly for a semi-autobiographical, conventionally plot-less, nouveau metafictional novel narrated by a mid-30s white male living in Brooklyn, this warm core may keep readers from turning on the book and its author. Vulnerable, awkward, cocksureless moments seem as sincere as those in which insightful and intriguing artistry rises to the level of literary wizardry. It’s like Lerner presents himself as ingenuously imperfect, as not quite totaled art, as neurologically damaged by just the right amount. On the second page he lets us know he’s just a little bit Marfan (which I couldn’t help feel like I was supposed to associate with Martian).
But a more important point is that, unlike recent literary renditions of Lerner’s identical demographic, the narrator is no Nathaniel Piven. The world rearranging itself around the narrator sounds a lot like solipsism, but instead of masturbating to Internet porn, the center of the rearranged world in this case does so in a fertility clinic to impregnate his best friend. The suggestion is clear: Ben’s literal and figurative wankery is generative, not indulgent. Also, thankfully, although a Walter Benjamin quotation appears beneath a mechanically reproduced Klee, neither Goethe, Wittgenstein, nor Bruno Schulz are called upon to offer intertextual thematic support—an emerging convention/annoyance of contemporary reality fiction. Further, unlike some recent novels that substitute the complexity of existence for a mean-spirited sense of frustrated entitlement as they reduce the teeming entirety of New York City to a handful of highly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods, 10:04 respects the city’s diversity and visual glories, the latter of which Lerner captures with something as simple as light through the lindens in Prospect Park. Not once does the narrator seem like a careerist journalist. Instead, like the Joan of Arc image at the Met reproduced early on, there’s a sense that he’s been called to rearrange the world as an artist. Equipped with a strong six-figure advance, he allocates $2,000 to extravagantly self-publish 50 copies of To the Future, a four-page book he and a young student produced about how the brontosaurus (“thunder lizard”) never existed—it’s a mistake of assemblage so commonly perpetuated it’s made its way to a postage stamp.
Despite the inclusion of images such as Michael J. Fox with mouth agape as his hand disappears in Back to the Future, a few online reviews I’ve seen have deemed the novel pretentious. It’s a risk publishers run when they distribute free copies via Goodreads, but I’m not sure it’s a pretentious novel so much as a portentous one, that is, it requires a memory and a willingness to assemble images and insights that suggest our inevitable doom, being pulled forward into a future in which we no longer exist. What there is of a plot (the narrator’s health concerns, Alex’s pregnancy, the storms, how he decides to write the book in the reader’s hands) doesn’t quite thicken. More so, the novel’s animating sensibility rearranges the reader’s world so when Ben walks across the Brooklyn Bridge from blacked-out Manhattan he emerges from a future Whitman envisioned before the city had electricity. He’s returning to the present, or I should say we’re returning. The narrator may be reluctant to assume a Whitman-like role (“he has to be a nobody in particular in order to be a democratic everyman, has to empty himself out so that his poetry can be a textual commons for the future into which he projects himself”), but for now let’s anoint the author as an unacknowledged legislator of the world—no matter how totaled and temporary its existence may be—and look forward to a future in which 10:04-inspiredcross-genre novels float down Tenth Avenue.