Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth: On Ben Lerner's Latest

BUT OF COURSE every generation has its own version, its own smoldering apprehension of end times, of the foreclosure of human history, the cessation of our capacity to inhabit this beautiful earth. But who (besides the increasingly obdurate and immoral climate deniers) can truly ignore the strange pocket of space-time we currently inhabit, in which a grievous threat to our habitat is not only assured, but also underway? Who knows what to do when that demise is underway, but not necessarily imminent? As Spanish philosopher Beatriz Preciado puts it: “The problem resides precisely in the fact that no one will come to save us and that we are still some distance from our inevitable disappearance. It will thus be necessary to think about doing something while we are on the way out.”

One of the things we can do, for better or worse, is make art. Whether or not this art takes the above predicament as its principal subject may not, in the long run, matter; in retrospect (should we be so lucky), almost all the art we are creating now will likely appear suffused — if not to say gaslit — by the slow-burning anxiety created by the deepening climate crisis, and the wealth gap that is its intimate companion. Ben Lerner’s 10:04 sets up shop in the eye of this anxiety. At 240 pages, his new novel does not announce itself as a magnum opus. But given Lerner’s considerable humor, rigorous intelligence, and shrewd breed of conscience — his bighearted spirit and formal achievement — it is. A generous, provocative, ambitious Chinese box of a novel, 10:04 is a near-perfect piece of literature, affirmative of both life and art, written with the full force of Lerner’s intellectual, aesthetic, and empathetic powers, which are as considerable as they are vitalizing.

Like Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04 is a conceptual novel of sorts, by which I mean that it takes what it wants from any number of genres (fiction, poetry, art criticism, autobiography) and corrals the results under the roof of “novel.” Readers and critics less familiar with this approach may spend time wondering about the novel’s taxonomy; those who regularly read and love writers such as Édouard Levé, Hervé Guibert, Violette Leduc, Eileen Myles, Marguerite Duras, W. G. Sebald, Lydia Davis, Fernando Pessoa, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Roberto Bolaño will likely take 10:04 on its own terms, and appreciate its autofictions, its elegant structure (its action is bracketed by two superstorms, 2011’s Irene and 2012’s Sandy), its meticulously constructed sentences, its deployment of poetic tropes (parataxis, refrain, dialogue that floats and rushes, semantic and syntactical leaps that treat the reader like a grown-up), and its facility in analyzing a wide range of political, cultural, and aesthetic artifacts, from Ronald Reagan’s speeches to artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock to Donald Judd’s sculptures to the ’80s hit comedy Back to the Future (from which the novel’s title derives).

Much will and should be said about Lerner’s spectacular prose, on display in the novel’s opening sentence, which introduces the reader both to Lerner’s style and the decadence to which his novel bears witness:

The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unseasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.

The decadence of this opening lunch — whose purpose is to celebrate the sale of the book we are now holding in our hands for “a strong six figure advance” ($270,000, the narrator later tell us, after taxes and the agent’s cut) — is both exuberant and horrifying. As the perverse fate of the baby octopuses suggests, the pleasures of this decadence are inextricably linked to the suffering and/or deaths of others, be they near or distant, human or non-.

Our narrator vibrates with this knowledge. Indeed, one of his principal gifts is apprehending, in a vertiginous, somatosensory, unrelenting fashion, the vast network of relationships set into motion by global capitalism, along with his implication in them. As he says some pages later, recalling his ingestion of the octopuses:

I swallowed and the majesty and murderous stupidity of it was all about me, coursing through me: the rhythm of artisanal Portuguese octopus fisheries coordinated with the rhythm of laborers’ migration and the rise and fall of art commodities and tradable futures in the dark galleries outside the restaurant and the mercury and radiation levels of the sashimi and the chests of the beautiful people in the restaurant — coordinated, or so it appeared, by money. One big joke cycle. One big totaled prosody.

At the opening lunch, the agent — while calculating tip — asks the author how he plans to expand his book proposal into a full-length novel; he imagines giving her this response: “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously, 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.” This is, in fact, a fair outline of 10:04. One might even say it is its plot. (There is another, more surface plot, involving the narrator’s best friend Alex, who has asked him to donate sperm so that she might bear a child; there is also a light romantic drama with a smart artist named Alena, and a darker medical one involving a rare, potentially grave condition — a dilated aortic root — with which the narrator is diagnosed on page two.) But the main narrative tension lies coiled in the author’s imagined précis: how does one — indeed, how can one — work one’s way from irony to sincerity, from cephalopod-eating literary highflier to Whitmanic vessel for empathy and collectivity — when such a goal is announced in an opening scene ostentatiously contaminated by privilege and capital, and rendered with an exacting wit that some might mistake for cynicism?

It might bear noting here that a novel written by a young, white, Ivy League–educated American male which foregrounds the bidding war and monumental advance that brought his novel into being, reproduces verbatim the short story published in The New Yorker which led to the book’s sale, and discusses the likelihood of the present novel’s symbolic capital (to be bestowed by glowing reviews in major publications, such as the one I am now writing) may rub some people the wrong way. From the outside, it rubs me the wrong way. But to understand what Lerner is up to and capable of, you have to take the ride. Once I did, I came to see his approach as bolder and more politically incisive than that of any number of heavily promoted works of art whose material conditions remain shrouded in mystery.

The narrator of 10:04 is — for the moment, anyway — on the winning end of an unjustifiable system and he knows it. (An early scene in which he and Alex shop for storm supplies at the colossal vitrine of Whole Foods on Union Square underscores the point, even if the class status of our main characters remains wobbly: Alex is living on unemployment after having attended NYU’s School of Public Service; the writer’s success as a fiction writer marks a change in fortune from his previous life as a poet-academic. Further, however monumental and rare his advance, such one-time payouts pale quickly when compared to the excesses of Wall Street, whose darkened buildings appear on the book’s jacket.) To stop there, however — to perform some lightweight mea culpa and then pretend such conditions have no bearing on the work at hand — would be the easy way out. For when it comes to reckoning with markets of varying kinds, privilege, inequity, whiteness, unevenly experienced environmental disasters, and all the messy guilt, denial, injustice, confusion, paradox, mourning, and despair such phenomena produce, there’s no truer way out than through. By naming numbers, by exhaustively bringing our attention to the ways in which we collectively, if distinctly, participate in the contradictions, hypocrisies, and exhilarations of our time, 10:04 lays bare the challenges of our conjoined predicament with an audacity that borders on recklessness. The book’s “meta” strategy is a tight-wire act that could easily fall, in less savvy, stringent, or searching hands, into tinny satire or obnoxious spectacle. Instead, 10:04 is a captivating, moving tour de force that earns its connection to Whitman (whose words merge with the narrator’s in the novel’s final line).

One way Lerner accomplishes this is by pushing hard on — indeed, pushing through — the concept of contamination. Take, for example, an important scene at the novel’s center, set in the Park Slope Food Coop — ground zero for mocking a certain demographic’s self-righteous liberalism. But Lerner is not after low-hanging fruit. “Complaining [about the co-op] indicated you weren’t foolish enough to believe that belonging to the co-op made you meaningfully less of a node in a capitalist network, that you understood the co-op’s population was largely made up of gentrifiers of one sort or another, and so on,” he writes, but then swiftly adds:

Though I insulted it constantly […] I didn’t think the co-op was morally trivial. I liked having the money I spent on food and household goods go to an institution that made labor shared and visible and that you could usually trust to carry products that weren’t the issue of openly evil conglomerates. The produce was largely free of poison. When a homeless shelter in the neighborhood burned down, “we” — at orientation they taught you to utilize the first-person plural while talking about the co-op — donated the money to rebuild it.

The first-person plural taught by the co-op may belie profound obstacles to human solidarity; we may be so awash in the hypocritical and the trivial that it’s hard to recognize that which is not. But, Lerner quietly reminds us, we abandon the pursuit of solidarity and integrity at our collective peril.

A headier example of a similar point arrives in an address our narrator delivers at Columbia’s School of the Arts, reproduced mid-novel in quotation marks. (The regular appearance of such texts-within-the-text is why I call the novel a Chinese box.) The talk gives an account of the narrator’s coming to poetry (Lerner is also the author of three poetry collections, and poetry plays an important role throughout 10:04, both literally and figuratively): “In the story I’ve been telling myself lately, I became a poet, or became interested in becoming a poet, on January 28th, 1986, at the age of seven” — i.e., the day the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight. The narrator recalls the power that Ronald Reagan’s subsequent speech — written by Peggy Noonan — had on him that night:

[…] the ending — one of the most famous conclusions of any presidential speech — entered my body as much as my mind: We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” […] Let me allow the preposterousness of what I’m saying to sink in: I think I became a poet because of Ronald Reagan and Peggy Noonan. The way they used poetic language to integrate a terrible event and its image back into a framework of meaning, the way the transpersonality of prosody constituted a community […] But I wonder if we can think of them as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as negative figures of its real possibility: prosody and grammar as the stuff out of which we build a social world, a way of organizing meaning and time that belongs to nobody in particular but courses through us all. Thank you.

Can the words of Peggy Noonan and Ronald Reagan really be reimagined as bad forms of collectivity that can serve as negative figures of its real possibility? Can art offer something other than stylized despair? Why reproduce if you believe the world is ending? These are 10:04’s abiding questions. As befits a poet, Lerner doesn’t answer them directly, but rather lets his own prosody, his own novelistic devices, comprise a response that is “proved upon our pulses,” as Keats had it.

Crucial among these devices is making space for long monologues by other speakers. Lerner used a similar device in Leaving the Atocha Station, but there the stories of others tended to highlight the narrator’s sense that everyone around him was having “real” experiences, while his remained somehow fraudulent. Here our narrator is an engaged, even breathless, listener. His eagerness to listen to other people from varying walks of life — including Roberto Ortiz, a third grader he unofficially tutors; a protester from Occupy Wall Street to whom he opens his home; a fellow worker at the Park Slope Food Coop named Noor; his own father; a gregarious “distinguished female author” with whom he has dinner after the Columbia talk; an unhinged graduate student named Calvin; an intern at an arts organization who is freaking out on ketamine — stands in sharp contrast to the kind of pompous, self-centered male author exemplified here by one at the same Columbia dinner, about whom the narrator says:

After two quick glasses of Sancerre, the distinguished male author starting holding forth, periodically tugging at his salt-and-pepper beard, moving from one anecdote about a famous friend or triumphant experience to another without pausing for the possibility of response, and it was clear to everyone at the table who had any experience with men and alcohol — especially men who had won international literary prizes — that he was not going to stop talking at any point in the meal.

Of course, one could say this is sleight of hand — the book is of course all Lerner, all the time — but this is literature, not anthropology, which means that the novel’s accomplishment lies in its offering of an experience of a certain kind of openness and curiosity, not in literally providing a platform for other voices. As the narrator vacillates between his own commentary and its suspension, we too learn something about the enjoyable, even ethical rhythm to be found in allowing ourselves our loquacity, then holding ourselves in a state of negative capability while we allow others theirs. Noor’s monologue, delivered to the narrator as they work side by side in the co-op basement, is exemplary here, in part because of its subject matter — Noor tells a complicated, surprising story about her Lebanese roots, in which she undergoes a life-altering experience of misrecognition, or disidentification — and in part because of our narrator’s intent interest in it. (After he is called upstairs to deliver the dried mangoes he’s been bagging, he rushes back, elbowing others out of the way so he can return to Noor’s side; eventually he works “as slowly as possible,” so as not to interrupt the rest of her tale.)

Many of the novel’s “guest speakers” are Cassandras of sorts, giving voice to paranoias that seem both insane and reasonable. Young Roberto relays a dream that links Joseph Kony, global warming, and the plight of being undocumented; the unhinged graduate student Calvin charges our professor-narrator:

You represent the institution. The institution speaks through you. But let me ask you something […] You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man-made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? […] Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?

In response, our narrator promises Roberto (in two languages) “the only thing I could: he had nothing to fear from Joseph Kony.” As for Calvin, our narrator emails him after their meeting to say he’s sorry if he upset him and that he wishes to be of help. But to the reader, he confides:

I did not say that our society could not, in its present form, go on, or that I believed the storms were in part man-made, or that poison was coming at us from a million points, or that the FBI fucks with citizens’ phones, although all of that to my mind was plainly true. And that my mood was regulated by drugs.

At times the narrator does seem to represent the voice of the institution, just as at times he seems as inclined to take pleasure in the magisterial excesses of the system as to protest actively its murderousness. Nonetheless, he too is another Cassandra, pondering the future with a paranoia that is utterly warranted, if unuseful in maintaining one’s daily equilibrium.

Futurity is 10:04’s principal concern, be it the future of the sinking metropolis of New York, the future of art, the future of capitalism, the future of the planet, or the future embodied by unborn human children, such as the one that Alex is carrying in the novel’s final scene. I mention this pregnancy not to be a spoiler (I trust that the relative plotlessness of the novel obviates this possibility), but because Alex’s pregnancy, and the uncertain role that our narrator will play in it, brings 10:04 into conversation with any number of meditations on the relationship between fertility, technology, and the future of the human species, from the dystopic science fiction of writers such as Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and P. D. James, to philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s apocalyptic “The Final Solution,” to Lee Edelman’s polemic No Future, where Edelman argues against something he calls “reproductive futurism,” in which all politics are cast as taking place on behalf of the innocent child. In keeping with his appetite for paradox, Lerner shapes 10:04 around a conception narrative, but does not fully indulge the happily-ever-after logic that so often attends it, even if by default. As the narrator contemplates the prospect of becoming either a donor or a father (or, most likely here, something in between), his ambivalence is acute, though not paralyzing. After letting the Occupy protester use his shower and preparing him a meal, for example, the narrator feels a rushing desire to have a child, which is followed by a fit of self-disgust:

So this is how it works, I thought to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anti-capitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household, that almost caricatural transvaluation of values lubricated by wine and song. Your gesture of briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic — your bathroom — into the commons leads you to re-describe the possibility of collective politics as the private drama of the family. All of this in the time it took to prepare an Andean chenopod. What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostasizing as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co-construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit.

I suppose there are some who will stubbornly hear sarcasm in such passages, signaled, perhaps, by language that rides the line between precise articulation and jargon. But I take such questions, and the language in which they are formulated, seriously. How does one develop a horizontal, collective politics while living in a system seemingly hell-bent on privatizing everything, including that capitalist bastion of Oedipal privacy, the domestic family? Can one refuse the hard edges of such distinctions, or would that simply be fooling oneself, a form of false consciousness? Our narrator offers no answers, but in the book’s final pages, he gives a virtuosic performance of what such blurring might feel like: past, present, and future tenses merge; the tight trio of the narrator, Alex, and developing fetus zooms in and out of focus, set against a metropolis teeming with other lives; the narrator’s first-person narration expands out to address the reader directly (“maybe you saw me”), and eventually encompasses the words of Whitman, testifying to a nearly incredible empathy with the multitudinous.

Many poets benevolently haunt 10:04 (most literally, Robert Creeley), but Whitman is foremost among them, due to his relationship to New York City (and Brooklyn in particular), as well as his poetry’s unrivaled capacity to summon the feeling of euphoric collectivity. But as the narrator smartly notes:

Whitman, because he wants to stand for everyone, because he wants to be less a historical person than a marker for democratic personhood, can’t really write a memoir full of a life’s particularities. If he were to reveal the specific genesis and texture of his personality, if he presented a picture of irreducible individuality, he would lose his ability to be “Walt Whitman, a cosmos” — his “I” would belong to an empirical person rather than constituting a pronoun in which the readers of the future could participate.

Our narrator takes the opposite route: he relishes the documentation of particularities, be they of objects, ideas, or psychological structures, and he steadily reveals the specific genesis and texture of his personality, be it via literal examinations of critical moments in his development, or simply via the rhythm of his attention, the scaffolding and cadence of his prose. Often he explicitly compares his situation to that of Whitman, noting the (degraded) difference between, say, our narrator’s role in talking an intern through a bad trip at an art party in Marfa, and Whitman’s deathbed ministrations to soldiers in the Civil War. “The smell of his buttondown shirt was repulsive,” our narrator says of the intern, who has vomited from alcohol and drugs. “I helped him get out of it, and then threw the sodden thing in the pool. With his arm around my shoulder and mine around his waist, I walked him slowly inside, a parody of Whitman, the poet-nurse, and his wounded charge.” The scene is indeed parodic — it’s like Boogie Nights, but in a desert town laced with high art. Yet when the intern, in a state of abject terror, begs the narrator, “Don’t leave me. I still don’t feel like I’m here,” the parody vanishes. No matter what the circumstance, human suffering matters. Our attending to it matters. Acts of tenderness are not morally trivial. Which is why our narrator stays with the intern until he is asleep, then kisses him on the forehead before taking leave.

Sounds sweet, right? But, as Preciado reminds us, nothing is going to come save us from a climate crisis of our own making, not even acts of interpersonal tenderness. As we begin to absorb this news — which by all rights shouldn’t be news — it is tempting to feel nihilistic, as if all that remains for us to do is give into “an alienation that has reached such a degree that [mankind] can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order,” as Walter Benjamin (another important figure in 10:04) wrote in 1936, facing down Fascism. 10:04 is not afraid to touch this nihilism, this alienation, nor the compromised aesthetic pleasures to be found there. But to its great credit, it does not succumb to their temptations. Its rigors and pleasures remain in service of nuance, of negotiation, of continuance. For as Naomi Klein has recently reminded us, demise isn’t all or nothing, at least not for the next few centuries. “There are degrees to how bad this thing can get,” Klein says. “Literally, there are degrees.” As we struggle to figure out how to notch back the degrees, so as to mitigate the suffering that a warming planet is going to bring, we also need to figure out forms of relationality — both to ourselves and to each other — that won’t make things worse.

By the time I finished 10:04, I felt I knew some: not being ashamed of the desire to make a living doing what we love, while also daring to imagine “art before or after capital”; paying as intense attention to our collectivity as to our individuality; demanding a politics based on more than reproductive futurism, without belittling the daily miracle of conception, nor the labor and mysterious promise of child bearing and rearing; attempting to listen seriously to others, especially those who differ profoundly from ourselves, no matter how pre-contaminated the attempts; spending time reading and writing poetry; and more. Far from despair, I felt flooded with the sense that everything mattered, from meticulous descriptions of individual works of art to kissing the forehead of a passed-out intern to analyzing our political language to documenting the sensual details of our daily lives to bagging dried mangoes to the creation of the book I was holding in my hand to my deciding to spend some time writing a review of it. “The earth is beautiful beyond all change,” Lerner repeats in 10:04, quoting the poet William Bronk. The inspired and inspiring accomplishment of his novel makes me want to say that, sometimes, art is too. And maybe — if incredibly — so might we be, ourselves.


Maggie Nelson’s most recent pieces for LARB were on Karen Green’s Bough Down and Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s The Weater in Proust.