10:04 by Ben Lerner

Every moment is charged with illimitable potential in Ben Lerner’s great second novel, and every action pregnant, however involuntarily, with the played narratives of both history and personal past. As with Lerner’s accomplished debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04’s unnamed narrator is a fictive refraction of its thirty-something author, a New York-based poet–critic turned in-demand novelist. The novel’s first scene sees him being greased by his agent to expect a ‘strong six-figure’ advance. It’s a charmingly neurotic start to a novel: a commemoration of the point when a work of literary merit is seized from the realm of the notional to become a promised commodity.

Such tensions are Lerner’s stock-in-trade. It is therefore no surprise to find 10:04 is prompted less by narrative impulse than by a drive to interrogate the paradoxes of vocational artisanship in the late-capitalist West. While the narrator’s struggles are mostly discrete to an individual of Lerner’s geopolitical, educational and socio-economic footing (in other words, first world problems), they are widely relatable thanks to Lerner’s self-effacing wit, which is outwardly attuned. As a financially secure white American male, the narrator’s position of relative privilege is never lost on him or Lerner. This hypervigilance is exploited often to great comic effect.

Having agreed, after much toing and froing, to play donor for his best friend Alex’s intrauterine insemination, he finds himself alone in a room at the IUI clinic – the ‘masturbatorium’ – shuffling back and forth between a sink and a TV screening an unappealing porno. Pants around his ankles and obsessively washing his hands, anxious that contact with any foreign surface might contaminate his sample, it becomes clear that Lerner himself is the long-suffering butt of his own jokes.

Aortic dissection (thanks to a recently diagnosed bung heart) and meteorological calamity are the chronic fears of Lerner’s narrator. One threat is individual and internal, almost infinitesimal; the other – menacingly present in the form of hurricanes Irene and Sandy, and recurrent allusions to global warming – is communal, the ruin it wreaks devastatingly obvious. What makes 10:04 more vital than any number of other parsings of the same NYC literati milieu is Lerner’s refusal to settle for mere witty solipsism. He is at times stultifyingly aware of the macro, and the novel is lent an egalitarian polyphony in the anecdotes offered by characters of varying backgrounds throughout. Lerner is beautifully attuned to the metabolic stirrings of his metropolis, where every individual operates as an autonomous node – a living, thinking atom – to make up a sublime greater whole.

Gerard Elson works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.