Saturday, September 24, 2016

10:04 by Ben Lerner

Donald Judd box sculpture in Marfa, Texas
 It's the calm before the storm of the season in Southwest Florida, and I'm enjoying having time to read rather than run. Ben Lerner's "10:04" has been on my list for some time. Wendi, my cultural guru, and I have talked about "10:04" because of Lerner's inclusion of Marfa, Texas in the story on more than one occasion. An article in NPR said of Marfa, "This tiny town perched on the high plains of the Chihuahua desert is nothing less than an arts world station of the cross, like Art Basel in Miami, or Documenta in Germany."(To read the article, click here. Needless to say, I want to visit.) But while Marfa plays a role in Lerner's "10:04," it is not the focal point of the book as I had expected. Instead, "10:04" is a story of friendship in a book about ideas with a heavy sprinkling of art and literature and popular culture. It's unlike any book I've ever read. I loved it.

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When we first meet our protagonist, he is leaving a celebratory dinner with his agent, who has just secured a book deal for him with a "strong six-figure" advance based on a story that appeared in the New Yorker. (A story Lerner wrote for the New Yorker is later dropped into the book. While "10:04" is fiction, the narrator bears much more than a passing resemblance to Lerner himself.) The question of how the story will be expanded is a thread that weaves throughout the book. But our narrator has other issues on his mind as well. He might have Marfan syndrome, a genetic disease. His best friend Alex wants a sperm donation to get pregnant. And then there are the complications of every day life and relationships.

Lerner's writing had me constantly reaching for my post-it notes.  Sometimes I was taken with the images and feelings his descriptions evoked. In his account of Alex raising the idea of the pregnancy during an outing to the Met, I could visualize the moment while getting a glimpse into the way their relationship worked. "Maybe she broached the subject at the museum and not over coffee or the like because in the galleries as on our walks our gazes are parallel, directed in front of us at canvas and not at each other, a condition of our most intimate exchanges; we would work out our views as we conconstructed the literal view before us...Which meant we'd eat a lunch in silence or idle talk, only for me to learn on the subsequent walk home that her mother had been diagnosed in a late stage.You might have us walking on Atlantic, tears streaming down her face, my arm around her shoulders, but our gazes straight ahead."

Other times our narrator's way of looking at the world made me stop and think. He relays, for instance, comments by a parent about why she is sending to her kids to private school. "A lot of the kids were just out of control....Obviously, it's not the kids' fault. A lot them are coming from homes...well, they're drinking soda and eating junk food all the time. Of course, they can't concentrate...They can't be expected to learn or respect other kids who are trying to learn." The narrator refers to this justification as "a new bio-political vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety; instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were--for reasons you sympathized with, reasons that weren't really their fault--compromised by the food and drink they ingested; all those artificial dyes had darkened them on the inside." Definitely some food for thought.

A photo of Christa McAuliffe from "10:04"
I was intrigued by what I think was the narrator's concept of the simultaneity of the past and the present and the future. His memory of his seven year old self in a classroom being told about the explosion of the Challenger by President Reagan is one example. "...I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery...The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

The title of the book itself is a play on time. It's a reference to a pivotal moment in "Back to the Future." At 10:04 p.m., Marty McFly (played by the wonderful Michael J. Fox) crashed back to the future from his visit to the 1950s in the time-traveling Deloreon. It's an important idea to the narrator, but I just can't quite figure out why.

I know I haven't done the book justice in this somewhat disjointed description. But my meandering captures the way Lerner's writing made my mind dart off in a dozen different directions. Clearly I need to re-read "10:04" to better understand some of the concepts the narrator raises. It's an assignment I welcome. And I eagerly look forward to reading Lerner's "Leaving the Antioch Station," his earlier work that introduces us to the narrator. But first I'm tackling some of the books recently nominated for this year's National Book Award. So many great books, so little time. 

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