“The World Was Rearranging Itself Around Me While I Processed Words from a Liquid-Crystal Display”: Ben Lerner’s “10:04”

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Since its publication in September 2014, New York-based writer Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, has drawn praise from all corners of the publishing world and was recently announced on the shortlist for the prestigious Folio Prize 2015. As far as I can tell, the book seemed to steamroll onto the British literary scene and the ubiquitous intelligent reviews lauding 10:04 as this year’s great novel saw it climb speedily up my reading list.

Having read the book, I feel that a good place to start for those who haven’t seen it is Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 time travelling Back to the Future. It is from here that Lerner’s novel takes its name (10:04 is the moment that lightning strikes the bell tower that initiates the protagonist’s voyage through time and space), and Lerner seems to concern himself and reinvent the themes of that film in what is a distinctly twenty-first century novel. The process of time, the way the past introduces the present and the present informs the future, man’s ability to actively change the future with actions in the present are all central ideas of the novel. While somewhat maintaining the playfulness of Zemecki’s film with a narrator who is laugh-out-loud funny, wry and forthright, I found the novel to simultaneously be extremely immediate, considering personal and international issues.

On the whole, it is testing to try to sum up the novel in a review such as this. This is primarily due to the way moments, scenes and time itself streams through the narrative and the overlaying and constant interchanging of ideas and themes. Moments seem to simply knock together like a train of dominoes, following each other seamlessly, and the sense of worldly time is loose at best. On the whole, the book centres on a writer who has received an offer of a ‘“strong six figure” advance’ from a publisher following the success of a short story published in The New Yorker and is grappling with a number of issues and decisions that will all heavily inform his future. The novel itself for one, but then also the decision of whether he will donate his sperm to his best friend, Alex, who yearns for a child, and then his recent diagnosis of Marfan syndrome which could lead to the rupturing of a major artery, and death, at virtually any moment. The decision regarding the donation of his sperm and fatherhood also weighs heavily on his bit-part relationship with Alena, who is constructing a new form of art gallery that uses only ‘worthless art’—that is art that has been damaged in some way or other and has been declared ‘worthless’ by the authorities, even though the damage may be minor. Masterfully written, Lerner’s prose echoes that of Joyce in its looseness and fluidity but also great experimentalist writers such as David Foster Wallace in his diction which is expansive, rich and urges you to the dictionary. Like his prose, the narratives and ideas that intertwine to form 10:04 are engrossing in their own right, intriguing, and deeply thought-provoking. Lerner doesn’t restrict himself to discussing themes one by one in great deal, but instead he simultaneously discusses several themes and topics as they ebb and flow in their multifarious forms through the duration of the novel.

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10:04 is a highly intelligent, experimental and contemplative book that looks at the way we use language and, I think, toys with the form on the novel and its contents; yet what I most enjoyed about the book was its effervescent comedy which is always bubbling away at the surface. The narrator is rather blunt, forthright and a hilarious observer. Try, for example, this description of a simple trip to a coffee shop where he is trying to acknowledge an awkward smile from a neighbour:

“His problem was that the coffee required two hands, or at least he had taken it with two hands, one on cup and one on saucer, so as not to spill the coffee or upset foam; he couldn’t return her wave. He felt himself scowling at this situation, realizing too late she’d think he was scowling at her.” p.47

There wry observations and descriptions are commonplace in the book, a large number of which spill over into the realm of satire which Lerner uses to poke fun at a plethora of contemporary issues. He is not solely poking fun, however, and Lerner offers serious reflection on the apparent absurdity of modern life. The modern phenomena of receiving all our news via smartphones and the internet, for example:

“As I read I experienced what was becoming a familiar sensation: the world was rearranging itself around me while I processed words from a liquid-crystal display. So much of the most important personal news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by smartphone while I was abroad in the city that I could not plot on a map, could represent spatially, the major events, such as they were, of my early thirties…” p.26

Or the strange presence of racial and social discrimination which still ostensibly exists in our times today despite our apparent efforts to try and eradicate it:

“Eventually I reached the park and walked into it only far enough to find a bench and sit down and watch the nannies, all of whom were black or brown, push around white kids in expensive strollers…” p.66

On top of this, Lerner touches on parenthood in the age of technological advancement, the forthcoming effects of global warming on cityscapes, the role of the arts in a society seemingly in meltdown, and more. There is no doubt in my mind that is book is a modern masterpiece; but what I felt is Ben Lerner’s greatest achievement with 10:04 is his blending of the high and the low, the serious and the playful, satire, humour and social critique in one great big bubbling pot. It bites, but calmly. It addresses urgent social issues without forcibly shoving them in your face and pointing fingers. It has the ability to open eyes, to educate, while being undoubtedly entertaining and amusing all the while. I would urge anyone with a love of language and an interest in the form of the novel to give this (short!) novel a read and I would love to hear how you found 10:04. Thanks for reading!

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“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

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In terms of plot, this short novel avoids complication. It is the story of a man and his son, who remain unnamed for the duration of the narrative, as they traipse through a barren, desolate landscape heading along The Road to the east-coast in order to avoid the deathly chill of winter. What has happened to this post-apocalyptic world is never explicitly revealed, but the torrid effects of what seems to be a type of deflagration are laid bare by McCarthy. Firstly there is the monochromatic grey landscape; the land’s produce is torched and withered, completely dead, and the air is polluted by the abundance of ash which clogs the lungs of the Man and leaves him coughing in the cold, dark nights. This heavy murk also covers the sun, a view of which seems to be rare if not impossible. At one point the Boy asks:

 

“If you were a crow could you fly up high enough to see the sun?

 

Yes. You could.

 

I thought so. That would be really neat.

 

Yes it would. Are you ready?”

 

The old landscape which, along with the absent sun, once fed and nourished life, is a mythical idea here, and instead the land is destructive and treacherous. The species of life that the Man and the Boy encounter on their journey along the road is suspicious, fearsome and almost unrecognisable. In a world where humanity survives on tinned and powdered goods, man has turned to cannibalism for survival. This forces the novel’s protagonist to take an understandably hostile approach towards strangers, one which is, at times, heart-breaking for the Boy.  Throughout the novel, he yearns for human contact, for goodness, for love. But The Road is a world defined by the stoicism and grit of the Man, and a glum acceptance the slight flicker of the flame of love and goodness only remains in this world because of these two characters.

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I found McCarthy’s prose to be fantastically simple, highly effective and emotive, but I was a bit stumped by his iconoclastic style. He seems (perhaps like a lot of us) to dislike grammar and his paragraphs are all very fragmented and spaced out across the page. This spacing of the paragraphs, I think, forces the reader to dwell on the sharp poignancy of the language and allows you to really feel the emotional weight of the plot. I wonder whether the collapse of the world as we know it is being mirrored by McCarthy’s prose in The Road, with the absence of particularly hyphens and apostrophes. Nevertheless, stylistically it certainly works and I thought McCarthy’s original and experimental approach to style and grammar was both interesting and refreshing and it is something I would love to see in more contemporary fiction.

 

 

Thematically, The Road is extremely rich and is a springboard for discussion on an abundant array of topics. I thought the portrayal of the Boy, a character who has grown up in this post-apocalyptic world, was extremely well done and one of the main strengths of the novel. The attention to detail that McCarthy pays to how a child would psychologically and physically mature in this dystopia pays its dues and gives us a genuinely realistic character who draws out our empathy. This is seen, for example, in the son’s incapacity to imagine the pre-dystopian, seemingly mythical world of green splendour, love and life that his father describes to him through stories. And again when the boy uses expressions and clichés gleaned from his father, “long term goals” and “warm at last” are memorable examples, and his father reacts with a mixture of confusion and pleasure at his son’s development. Glints of humanity such as these are charming, pleasant but also heart-wrenching and depressing when facing the bleak reality of their fate. McCarthy is able to imitate the repetition of routine of their day-to-day life without the novel ever feeling tedious or repetitive. He does this by recounting in meticulous detail the minutiae of their lives, and this style reminds us that although we might have a samey, tedious weekly routine, no day is ever the same and we should not take this for granted, especially in the wake of The Road. Another final point of interest is that the novel contains nearly no woman at all, and the women that do appear just pass by as part of a group. The Man and the Boy do skirt around the subject of the Boy’s mother, but in relatively short time. The absence of women, for me, coincides with the absence of life, love and goodness in this novel. In fact, you could read this novel as a depiction of what would happen if men were in charge of weapons of mass destruction that could realise McCarthy’s dystopia (Hmmm…).

 

There’s so many more facets to this novel that I have not even touched upon and for this reason I it would be a wonderful novel for a book club to explore or for a student to write about for a dystopian-based essay. If you haven’t read this novel, I urge you to go out and grab it and Pan MacMillan have a wonderfully designed edition (see below) designed by David Pearson that you can pick up online from Foyles here (or in any good local independent bookshop on your high-street!), an edition whose cover is supremely more tasteful that my own!

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Thanks for reading, let me know what you thought of The Road and if I have missed any interesting angles.