10:04 (Ben Lerner)
Well, this book is really something else. I was blown away, I tell you—BLOWN AWAY, hurricane-style, by the apocalyptically desperately angry force of it. I liked Leaving the Atocha Station well enough, but 10:04 is in another category altogether. What an achievement! What a book! What a world we live in, with so many good books out there to read! Forget Pokemon—how are we ever going to catch them all?! I felt short of breath by the end of this, like I was about to have a panic attack. This is a real page-turner.
One of the coolest things about reading this book is how contemporary it is. How mundanely ordinary (at least for white middle-class people living in the West :D). The narrator eats baby octopuses that have literally been “massaged to death”, experiences two hurricanes that are underwhelmingly apocalyptic, tutors an undocumented elementary-school student about dinosaurs and extinction, frets about surveillance, goes to museums, reads about Walt Whitman, accidentally takes ketamine during a writer’s retreat in Texas, goes regularly to the hospital to take tests for a potentially fatal medical condition, and is asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child. Why should this feel like such a treat, to read a book so focused on a very particular kind of 21st-century experience? Why don’t more books try to do this? How does it feel so immediate and urgent? Is it the way it blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, between criticism and narrative?
Despite the eerie way it blurs with form (fittingly enough, I’m pretty sure that JM Coetzee has an uncredited cameo early on), this still feels very much a novel. The narrator is our conduit for meeting a number of characters during his “emotional journey” and is our vessel for hearing a series of fascinating stories. At one point, his co-worker in the Brooklyn co-op (I’ve been there, and his description of its slow registers, epic lines and dry fruit-filled aisles are absolutely spot on) tells him a story about how she discovered that her Lebanese father was not actually her biological dad. Does this mean she is still justified in considering herself Arab-American? We hear another tale from the narrator’s best friend’s dad (that’s a mouthful!), who once had a girlfriend who lied to him about having cancer. These themes of fradulence and trickery are reminiscent of Atocha Station, a book in which the narrator spent the majority of the time lying about how his mother was dead. I was initially tempted to read 10:04 as a sort of sequel, but it is decidedly different in tone and theme: it’s definitely more interested in finding moments of sincerity, rather than exploring the weird double situation that arises from pretending to be someone you’re not.
One of the most fascinating themes in this book is that of time. The epigraph is attributed to Walter Benjamin and is often referred to throughout the narrative:
The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come… Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.
This idea of the future being the same but different, or of having the present and the past existing at the same instance, is one that comes up repeatedly. The narrator’s interest in Walt Whitman also connects with this theme, as Whitman was very much a writer who was obsessed with making his writing project into future time, directly addressing citizens of the future. The title 10:04 is also (obviously) time-based, referring to the moment in Back to the Future (a film still unseen by me, a status that may have to change very soon) that lightning strikes the courthouse clock tower and allows Marty to return to 1985 in his magical car or whatever it was.
At another key point in the book, the narrator and his best friend go see an art exhibition called The Clock, which I was in shock to recognize—I went to see it when I was in Lisbon!! It is totally nuts: basically, the artist spent years creating a 24-hour film made out of clips that either shows watches or clocks (Big Ben is especially popular), or has the characters referring to time. When I watched it in Lisbon, I had no idea this was the case, and it took me a while to figure out that the movie time and the “real” time on the phone that I kept checking were actually one and the same, real and fictional time fused and synthesized. Is this fusion something that 10:04 itself was attempting to do, with its weird non-fiction hybridity?
Another important theme in the book is that of connection, an overwhelmingly 21st-century theme. Roberto, the boy the narrator tutors, is afraid of Joseph Kony due to YouTube videos, a fact that the narrator marvels at—what a day and age we live in, when an undocumented Salvadorean in Brooklyn fears a Ugandan dictator. During another key moment, while shopping for canned goods and emergency supplies for Hurricane Irene, the narrator slips into a meditation while holding a can of instant coffee:
I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvested on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellín and vacuum-sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported back by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label. It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close. (19)
What an ordinary moment! How simple and recognizable! How miraculous and horrifying!
The book ultimately finds a certain redemption in Walt Whitman-esque moments of connection, moments that (as Lerner says in this interview) are maybe the only thing we have that are free from the monstrous nightmares of commodification, surveillance, drone-warfare, etc., etc., etc. Here’s the specific part from the interview that really stuck with me:
Interviewer: The epigraph to 10:04 is a Hassidic story about how the “world to come”—the redeemed world—will be just like this one, only a little different: where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. This idea occurs on many levels throughout your book—when the narrator holds a can of instant coffee on the eve of a storm, when he considers time in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, when he looks at a piece of “totaled art,” he evokes this idea of a world that’s just slightly different, but somehow totally transformed. What thoughts do you have about this parable?
BL: I think the parable is a peculiar way of saying that redemption is immanent whether or not it’s imminent, that the world to come is in a sense always already here, if still unavailable. I find this idea powerful for several reasons. For one thing, it’s an antidote to despair. Many of the left thinkers that really matter to me—that formed a big part of my thinking about politics and art—emphasize how capitalism is a totality, how there’s no escape from it, no outside. We all know what they mean: every relationship can feel saturated by market logic or at best purchased at the price of the immiseration of others. But I’m increasingly on the side of thinkers like David Graeber who are talking back to this notion of totality and emphasizing how there are all kinds of moments in our daily lives that break—or at least could break—from the logic of profit and the modes of domination it entails. Zones of freedom, even if it’s never pure. And I like to think—knowing that it’s an enabling fiction—of those moments as fragments from a world to come, a world where price isn’t the only measure of value.
Or as the narrator puts it in 10:04, following a climatic conversation with a potentially mentally ill (or maybe just overtly sane?), Philip K. Dick-like graduate student:
“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents. (218)
What a book! How lucky we are, that stuff like this is getting written, let alone published. What a century we live in…. D:
The Wallcreeper (Nell Zink)
This is another contemporary, highly critical acclaimed book that absolutely deserves the attention. BELIEVE THE HYPE. The individual sentences are shockingly well-written; the plot is mundane, everyday, and more gripping to me than any airport thriller. Aside from Lydia Davis’ The End of the Story, this book has maybe one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship in literature I’ve ever read. I especially loved how the fact that they both kept ****ing other people was, like, the least of their problems. How are we supposed to genuinely love each other in this devastatingly modern day and age? How are we supposed to connect with other individuals when we can barely connect with ourselves?That’s what this book ultimately became “about” for me, I think. I haven’t even mentioned the environmental terrorism theme, but there ya go!
In terms of minor issues, I had trouble telling the two boyfriends, Olaf and Gernot, apart. I also sort of zoned out by the end during the long paragraphs talking about specific dam-building policies of Germany. But GOD-DAMN, what a risky, prickly, brilliant little book. As a bonus, it is also extremely short.
Those killer sentences! “His awkward hands reminded me of the flames around Joan of Arc at the stake.” (13) “I felt like generations of bluesmen whining about women they shot to death.” (53)
The WTF humor! “We had loving, beautiful sex just as soon as we could get ourselves to stop talking–loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake.” (38)
The political-environmental-social commentary! “Why exactly twenty-somethings are considered so vital to protest movements, I never figured out, seeing as how they never vote and have no money.” (94)
The dark-dark, oh-so-real intimate moments between the narrator and her husband! “Stephen said, “Come over here so I can beat the shit out of you.”” (65)
And this is maybe one of my favorite similes EVER: “The crows walked spread out in teams like policemen looking for a corpse in the woods, turning their heads from side to side, staring at the grass with one monocled eye and then the other.” (76)
If nothing else, read this book so you can get to the part about Brighty the donkey in Albania. That’s some funny shit.
As a bonus, here’s a Paris Review interview with Nell Zink that gives you a fairly good gist of her jammin’ style.