Ben Lerner

Leaving the Atocha Station was an unexpected pleasure, a book that I picked up uncertainly and felt won over by. Even though I was conscious of limiting my expectations (or at least trying to) with this novel, Lerner’s second, I still felt disappointed that I wasn’t as engaged with this one as I’d hoped I would be.

There are similar themes and pretenses in both books, like questions of authenticity — though here they are framed more from the perspective of intended fraudulence rather than being discovered as accidentally inauthentic. It’s much clearer in this novel how similar the main character is to the author, but 10:04 treads into autobiographical metafiction territory, most clearly when the short story Lerner had published in The New Yorker (“The Golden Vanity”) is referenced as being the character’s work and included within the novel in full. That story is also written in a blurred, non/fiction style with a character called “the author” who is also Ben Lerner or perhaps another version of him. In an interview with TNY, Lerner stated that this wasn’t just a pretentious trick but illustrates “how each of us is constantly striving to reorganize mere chronology into some meaningful pattern, to narrate our pasts in a way that makes a future thinkable. The part of the cliché ‘you’re the author of your own life’ that I agree with is its implication that our identities are fictions.”

In many ways I intellectually appreciated this novel, but I got stuck a few times, especially as 10:04 proceeds in a more diffuse manner than Leaving the Atocha Station did with its lovely, elegiac air. This one didn’t fully cohere for me, even with neat structural supports like beginning and ending with hurricanes. At times this seems to be a novel of anecdotes — characters telling each other stories, largely of their own lives, which ties nicely into Lerner’s philosophy about how we narrate ourselves. Some of these stories raise profound questions about identity and those narrations we author. Ultimately the book was a little too self-aware to fully draw me in.

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