Ben Lerner’s novel is on the boundary between amazingly smart and irritatingly smart-ass, and it’s sometimes both at the same time.
This fits this meta-novel admirably because – as the narrator also claims – 10:04 plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction not in the usual postmodern way – rather, it shimmers between reality and fiction, and sometimes it feels as if it were simultaneously both. (And of course, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fictitious. But it doesn’t matter – while reading this novel, it really does not.)
The motto of the novel – which also comes up multiple times in the text – is that there might exist a future or a parallel reality that is exactly like the current one, except that it’s completely different. A reality or future where nothing has changed visibly but nothing is the same, either. The narrator-protagonist of the novel (Ben Lerner, in a more or less fictitious – and it’s irrelevant how fictitious – version) explores these alternative realities.
The story takes place roughly at the time when Lerner’s writing this very novel (the novel also includes the story of its own inception), and it’s set in an almost-real reality where a possibly approaching apocalypse seems to loom over everything. At the beginning of the story, Lerner learns that he suffers from a possibly fatal heart condition (this is, again, something invisible from the outside but life-changing from the inside). At the same time, his best female friend decides that she wants a child and approaches Lerner with the idea that he should provide his sperm for this purpose (what will that parallel reality be like where Lerner’s a father? will he really become a father or will he just be a sperm donor? how much does he want the be a father, anyway?). While all this is going on, Lerner leads his usual life as a writer (yes, he writes, this novel, for example, meets people, and also goes to museums and cultural events – and everything affects him and his writing). And of course, it’s not clear whether these things happen to the real Lerner or to his narrator.
Besides all this, the novel is full of philosophical wanderings and short essays about a whole array of topics (how the experience we derive from a work of art is influenced by the circumstances in which we consume an art work; why Lerner wanted to become a poet; how individuals and societies come to terms with dramatic and traumatic events, be they either personal or national tragedies; how we can lead an ethical life; who decides what art is; and so on) and it also contains lots of sometimes morbid, sometimes life-changing episodes, told in an offhand manner, which show how even in real life we’re constantly fluctuating between reality and fiction, and how most things we build our lives on are based solely on an agreement on what to believe – and how, because of this, all of our most basic premises about our life are ultimately fragile and vulnerable.
Just one example: there’s an episode about a woman who built her identity and sense of self around the cultural heritage of her father, who was of Arabic origin. After her father’s death, she learns that she’s in fact a child from her mother’s earlier relationship, and she’s a white American. Consequently, she loses the ground from beneath her feet and she’s not sure anymore who she is. Of course, she can continue to work on preserving her Arabic heritage but it won’t be the same anymore – and indeed, how could it be the same.
This novel is like this – a floating, vibrating, strange text, smart and smart-assy, unfinished and unfinishable, full of indecision and concerns, but it’s still slightly optimistic, which is something I especially like.