10:04 by Ben Lerner


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An acclaimed but modest-selling novelist (not unlike the author himself) muses semiautobiographically on time, life and art.

“Proprioception”: The narrator of Lerner’s knotty second novel returns often to that word. It refers to the sense of where one’s own body is in relation to things, a signature theme for an author who’s determined to pinpoint exactly where he is emotionally and philosophically. As the novel opens, our hero has earned a hefty advance for his second book on the strength of his debut and a New Yorker story. This echoes Lerner’s real life, in which his first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), was a critical hit; the New Yorker story included in this novel did indeed appear in the magazine. What to make of such self-referentiality? More than you’d expect. Lerner blurs the lines between fact and fiction not out of self-indulgence but as a way to capture experience that emphasizes detail over narrative structure. That can pack both an emotional and an intellectual punch. Watching Christian Marclay’s art film The Clock (from which the book derives its title), Lerner is free to consider the distinctions between real time and imaginary time. Writing about his dead-ended attempt to make a novel out of fake letters between well-known writers, he plays with real and invented identities. There’s plenty of dry wit in 10:04 and some laugh-out-loud moments too (as when he’s asked to deliver a sperm sample on behalf of a friend eager to have a child). But as in his first novel, Lerner’s chief tone is somber; Topic A remains whether his ambition will fully connect with his art. At times he seems to strain to make scraps of experience (a residency in Texas; prepping for Superstorm Sandy; a shift at a Brooklyn grocery co-op) relevant to his themes, but few novelists are working so hard to make experience grist for the mill.

Provocative and thoughtful, if at times wooly and interior.

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-86547-810-7
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2014


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