Ben Lerner’s second novel 10:04 needs to be understood in the context of his first, Leaving the Atocha Station.
In 2011, Leaving the Atocha Station was a highly praised debut. It told the story of a young American poet, Adam Gordon, struggling his way through a prestigious, Madrid-based fellowship due to his unfortunate failure to learn any Spanish before moving there.
Desperate to avoid other Americans but baffled by the Spanish-speaking world in which he finds himself, Adam spends most of the novel wandering around the city, drunk or high. In the process, he develops an extraordinary meditation on the nature of projection — how we project words on to others when we don’t understand their language, how we project thoughts on to our partner when we don’t understand them in a relationship, and how we project when we read a poem. Less than 200 pages, it managed to come to a surprisingly satisfying thematic denouement, even as its characters and plotlines fall apart.
There was a great deal of anticipation for Lerner’s follow-up, 10:04, published in late 2014. Named for the moment in Back to the Future when lightning strikes the famous DeLorean, 10:04 is a longer, non-chronological work about a New York-based writer having difficulty completing his second novel after the unexpected success of his first. Even if you knew nothing of Lerner, alarm bells might ring. As Giles Harvey put it in the New York Review: “Haven’t we read this one — the one about the postmodern novelist struggling to write his next novel — several dozen times before? Do we really need another 250 pages on the rarefied agonies of fiction-making?”
The protagonist now deals with the issues of his thirties, not his twenties: there is a lot of fun in his internal monologues as a brilliant humanities scholar struggling with child-minding, cooking, mortality, and the artificial insemination of his 36-year old best friend. The awkwardness of the social interactions comes up a notch, in part because they’re now wholly in English. The scenes are sadder, stranger, more dramatic.
More than anything though, the sharp eye that Atocha Station showed for projection — for gaps between perception and actuality — returns in 10:04. Flickering realities are everywhere. The memory-altering effects of anaesthetics are linked to the memory-altering effects of false history and the memory-altering plot of Back to the Future. The way characters perceive every-day objects when viewing them as art is linked to the way they perceive them when high, or in a disaster zone, or high in an art gallery in a disaster zone. The novel itself moves back and forth between dissertation and fabrication.
10:04 is more like a 1.5th novel than second. It poses a tantalising question about Lerner’s next work. If it is very different, 10:04 will end up looking like Atocha Station II — like a companion piece, and in a good way, I think. But if it is the same again, reflexive and exegetical, then Lerner will start looking less like a great novelist and more like a great critic-masquerading-as-novelist. He will definitely still be worth reading.