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When Are Metafictional Games a Mask For Laziness?

The complex style of Ben Lerner

Scott Halleran/Getty Images News

On the first page of Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, the narrator walks along the High Line park in Manhattan with his literary agent after having shared a dish of baby octopus “massaged to death” in salt, and experiences a “succession of images, sensations, memories” which belong not to him, but to an octopus: Polarized light, a “conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups.” Of this empathic occurrence, the narrator clarifies: “I am kidding and I am not kidding.”

That statement is a warning shot, a sign of fabrications to come. 10:04 inhabits the liminal zone between kidding and not kidding in the sense that it is not strictly a work of fiction or non-fiction, but a meta-fiction preoccupied with the mysterious alchemical reaction that turns life into art. It is a brilliant novel, and one that left me with the uncomfortable suspicion that I was just possibly the object of a joke. When an author kids, someone is kidded.

Lerner is a poet who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown, and traveled to Madrid on a Fulbright. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, follows Adam Gordon, a poet who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown, and is living in Madrid on a fellowship. Although Gordon is supposed to be at work on a research-driven poem exploring the Spanish Civil War’s literary legacy, he mostly faffs about, going to museums and getting high. Gordon worries that he is a fraud—which perhaps he is. He makes things up to manipulate those around him and is somewhat in awe of seemingly authentic people who appear capable of genuine, un-studied feelings and actions.

In theme Atocha Station is adolescent: Gordon is as insecure as Holden Caulfield. But Lerner’s deep probing into Gordon’s awkwardness, as well as his intricate sentences, lift the novel far out of the Y.A. realm. Atocha Station deserves the critical praise it received—and it received plenty.

While Gordon bears a passing resemblance to Lerner, he still feels like a fictional character. The unnamed narrator of 10:04 seems more closely associated with Lerner—seems more like a stand-in—partly because, unlike Gordon, who busies himself not writing, the 10:04 narrator does write: He writes 10:04. Lerner thus participates in the contemporary vogue for self-reflexive, memoiristic novels (think Lunar Park, My Struggle, etc.)

A poet from Kansas who published a successful first novel, the narrator-protagonist receives a six-figure advance for a second novel on the strength of a story that ran in The New Yorker. He promises his agent that he’ll work on expanding the story into a novel during an artist’s residency in Marfa, Texas. While in Marfa he decides “to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that … is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them.” That “flickering” makes the novel feel structurally unstable, like the textual equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing, as Lerner jumps from one fictional level to the next.

On what I’ll call fiction level A, the narrator-protagonist has been diagnosed with a heart condition and considers impregnating his platonic best friend, Alex, not “in copula, but rather through intrauterine insemination.” (In the funniest scene in the novel, the protagonist compulsively rewashes his hands, scared of contaminating the sample, before masturbating into a plastic container.) Meanwhile his ailing mentor, Bernard, has named him his literary executor. In the midst of all this, the protagonist decides to write a story involving “a series of transpositions.” He’ll shift his medical problem to another part of his body and call Alex “Liza.” Instead of becoming a literary executor, he’ll be approached by a university about selling his papers. He’ll call himself “the author.”

Level B is that story, “The Golden Vanity,” which appeared in the June 18, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, and which re-appears as the second chapter of 10:04. Level C is the novel that the protagonist from level A, after publishing “The Golden Vanity,” begins writing but ultimately abandons: A novel in which an author—the one from level B—“tries to falsify his archive, tries to fabricate all these letters—mainly e-mails—from recently dead authors that he can sell to a fancy library.”

Adding yet more intricacy, Lerner scrambles the chronology. The protagonist describes his advance on the second page of the novel and then goes back in time to explain how he came to write the New Yorker story. He writes it, publishes it, again describes his advance and his celebratory dinner with his agent (the one where they eat octopus), flies to Marfa, decides to write 10:04, and returns home to New York. This circularity doesn’t actually make the novel that difficult to follow—though it does make it difficult to describe. 

Even when the narrative moves in a linear fashion it doesn’t feel linear since Lerner repeats himself—purposefully, of course. Toward the beginning of the novel, the protagonist and Alex prepare for Hurricane Irene. Toward the end they experience Hurricane Sandy, an echoing event. Back to the Future, the Michael J. Fox movie about time travel, comes up on several occasions. In fact, 10:04 takes its name from a detail in Back to the Future: That’s when lightning strikes a clock tower, powering the time-traveling car that takes Fox’s character back to “the future,” his present: 1985. 

Lerner doesn’t risk the possibility that readers will miss the connection between his temporal and fictional experiments. In Marfa, when the protagonist announces that he’ll write “the book you’re reading now,” he elaborates, “I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.” 

What Lerner is driving at here is difficult to summarize, like any complex idea; I take it he means that the process of turning life into fiction is like going back in time. While writing fiction/inhabiting the past, an author feels, like Fox’s character in Back to the Future, that he could make different choices, creating a subtly different present. 

It’s not strictly accurate to say that “Lerner is driving at” something; maybe it’s the narrator-protagonist driving at something and Lerner would argue otherwise—though one could be forgiven for conflating the two, and not only because they share basic biographical details. They both wrote “The Golden Vanity,” after all. And they both wrote the long poem excerpted in the Marfa section (“The Dark Threw Patches Down Upon Me Also”). And then anyone familiar with Lerner’s critical writing will realize that he and his protagonist hold rather a lot of opinions in common. For instance the protagonist repeats several paragraphs worth of insights from Lerner’s December, 2013 Harper’s essay on art vandalism and damaged art.

It was recognizing the Harper’s essay that first made me wonder if I were the object of a joke. That, like his protagonist, Lerner felt compelled for various reasons to write a second novel and decided to do so by joining already-published work with already-expressed ideas, figuring he could justify this process by making process a part of the story.  That’s an old trick: Masking laziness with knowingness.

The Marfa section, in which the protagonist describes his dull daily life there—eating, sleeping, writing— aggravates the feeling that Lerner doesn’t have all that much respect for his readers; that he’s a poet who condescends to write novels, and thinks too highly of his ability to convert whatever he happens to think or experience into narrative. He describes greeting young Mexican men laboring on his roof: “I turned and waved and said—my own voice strange to me from disuse—good morning.” Then he describes turning them into characters in a poem: “When I returned to the house a couple of hours later the men were still at work, so I put them in the fictional summer of the poem as they hammered above me.” (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Lerner was indeed a writer-in-residence in Marfa—though that was before he published “The Golden Vanity.”) 

That Lerner sometimes lets the reader in on his meta-fictional jokes does not lessen the feeling that he’s trying to get away with something. At the celebratory, baby octopus dinner, the protagonist’s agent offers advice on how to write a commercially viable book: 

“Just remember this is your opportunity to reach a much wider audience. You have to decide who you want your audience to be, who you think it is. … Develop a clear, geometrical plot; describes faces, even those at the next table; make sure the protagonist undergoes a dramatic transformation.”

The protagonist does none of that. Immediately before the agent’s speech, he mentions the customers at the next table but fails to describe their faces, saying only that the women’s eyes are “lined with shadow.” Lerner certainly expects readers to notice that wink; and maybe, in noticing, to excuse any flaws elsewhere as intentional elements of a novel meant for a select, rather than “wide” audience.

If these criticisms sound like whatever the opposite is of a backhanded compliment, that’s my intention. Lerner has written a rich, sophisticated novel, and maybe he’s not wrong to assume that he can make just about anything succeed on the page, or that readers will forgive his repackaging of his own poetry, stories, and ideas—since the poetry, stories, and ideas work in the new context (and were good to begin with). Some readers may actively like happening upon familiar material, since that gives them the opportunity to re-engage with it.

Lerner may or may not reach the “much wider audience” that his fictionalized agent describes. Anyway that doesn’t seem important to him. But he will likely satisfy his existing audience with 10:04, as promising a second effort as Atocha Station was a debut.