After weeks of searching for a pithy way of saying Ben Lerner is the most original young American author working today, here’s what I got: Ben Lerner is the most original young American author working today.
Like his fiction debut, the bildungsroman Leaving the Atocha Station, Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, is erudite, self-referential and daring. It’s a little lighter on the laugh-out-loud humor but deeper on wisdom and those “yes, exactly!” moments that make a book memorable.
The narrator is a 33-year-old Brooklyn author whose first novel has been a great success. If it sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it was written by a 33-year-old Brooklyn author whose first novel was a great success. Celebrating a hefty six-figure advance for his next book, the narrator ruminates on everything but his success. He has a heart condition that might kill him and a request from his best friend to father her baby. He also tutors a young boy in what feels a lot like a Big Brother program for the literati. Not to mention that the book he is writing, the one he received the hefty advance for, is not the one he has promised the publisher.
10:04 has a complicated structure that asks the reader to put in some work. It contains a book within a book, poems and an entire short story. Each of the five sections could stand alone, although they tie in together nicely, even brilliantly. The book is set mostly in New York City, with all its attendant post 9/11 fuzziness. But Lerner, who has been a Fulbright Scholar and currently teaches at Brooklyn College, portrays the city as an exposed nerve, where the highly creative gorge on the present while looking up in the sky for that other shoe, which is almost sure to present itself in the form of one superstorm—the book opens and closes with hurricanes Irene and Sandy, respectively—or another.
Under that canopy of overarching doom, Lerner’s wonderful story of a nervous young man living a modern literary life resonates far beyond its parts. It is bold, poetic and accomplished, something to savor, a marvel of form and style that will leave the reader thinking of Nabokov, Bellow and Phillip Roth.