’10:04’ by Ben Lerner – A Novel About Writing a Novel

’10:04’ by Ben Lerner    (2014) – 241 pages

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The technical term for ’10:04’ by Ben Lerner is that it is a lame metafiction. According to Dictionary.com, Meta-fiction is “fiction that discusses, describes, or analyzes a work of fiction or the conventions of fiction.”  Or, more simply, metafiction is a fiction that deals with writing fiction.

The word MetaFiction sounds like one of those pretentious modern terms, but the first great metafiction novel goes all the way back to ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes in the early seventeenth century.  In ‘Don Quixote’, Don Quixote’s friend advises him how to make his story look like other tales of chivalry, and thus the first great metafiction was born.  I love the games that Cervantes plays with his knight Don Quixote and his trusted squire Sancho Panza.

A more recent example of a metafiction that I admire is ‘Dublinesque’ by Enrique Vila-Matas in which he and some of his author friends go to Dublin to celebrate Bloomsday.  ‘Dublinesque’ is one of the most charming novels ever written.  Another great work of metafiction is ‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov which dazzles us with its hunor and depth.

However I do not find all metafiction so entertaining.  For example, this year I found ‘My Struggle – Book I’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard to be mundane and essentially humorless, a long slog.

But I’m here today to review ’10:04’.  The novel is about Ben Lerner writing a novel which happens to be ’10:04’.

 “I was there at the age of thirty three because a doctor had discovered incidentally an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurismal dilation of my aortic root that required close monitoring and probable surgical intervention and the most common explanation of such a condition at such an age is Marfan, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that typically produces the long-limbed and flexible.” 

 Please take the above sentence, because I don’t want it.  Lerner may be making some sly comment on medical lingo.  He also may be using these words to obtain precision.   However I found this sentence and the many other sentences like this in the novel off-putting.

There’s a lot of medical jargon in the book. I was not delighted by the several pages devoted to the author’s wisdom tooth extraction.  Nor did all the other pages devoted to the author’s various medical procedures do anything for me. Then there is the sperm donation scene.  That shtick is a stale old comedy routine.

The danger for Ben Lerner is that he may come across as an insufferable hypochondriac and not very funny.  When he talks about his book, he talks about the huge advance the publishers will be paying him.  Contrast that with the sparkling insights expressed by the various writers in ‘Dublinesque’.   Instead of “a nice crossing of reality and fiction” which is probably what the author intended, many of the scenes are distinctly unpleasant.

The novel begins and ends with a bad storm in New York City.  The New York presented here is pretty much the standard issue New York with no original thoughts or insights regarding the city.  The way Lerner talks about the storms sounds like an extension of his hypochondria.

’10:04’ is somewhat of a diffuse hodgepodge with a story thrown in here and a poem thrown in there.  The only character that comes across distinctly is the Author himself, and I found the Author somewhat repellent.

 

 

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for that honest review. I carried Lerner’s first novel around for two years uncertain about whether I really wanted to read it. A radio interview brought it back to mind and I did quite enjoy it – and it was the right time for me to read it if that makes sense. I saw this one but as I have started seeing reviews doubts are creeping in. Second novels are a tricky domain sometimes.

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    • Hi roughghosts,
      Perhaps if I had read Ben Lerner’s first novel ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’, I would have reacted better to ’10:04′. After reading many positive reviews I did have high expectations for ’10:04′, but the sentence I quoted above was on the second page of the novel, and it really put me off. Also I am little concerned about how much of an advance a writer received when there are so many more interesting things to discuss about fiction.

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      • He does seem to want give his narrators medical maladies. I was intrigued by Atocha Station because he paints his character as suffering from an anxiety or mood disorder and as someone currently battling both I found that that aspect does not entirely ring true – it seemed like a prop. Fortunately there was enough self deprecating humour and an interesting setting to make it worthwhile.

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        • Hi roughghosts,
          I suppose it is kind of unfair of me to compare a modern novelist to Cervantes, Nabokov, Vila-Matas (although he too is modern), etc. The prose and the attitude put me off ’10:04′. Also the main title reference is to ‘Back to the Future’ which I don’t regard as any kind of classic.

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  2. Thank you SO much for this review!!! This book received so many great reviews from different publications and they have been praising it as great literary fiction. I am so relieved to find that I am not the only one who found that the author was trying too hard to be literary and I found it really pretentious! I thought at the core of the book he had a decent story but he buried it beneath cumbersome prose.

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    • Hi Magistra Beck,
      Yes, ’10:04′ has received many great reviews. In fact mine is the first negative one I’ve read. ‘Cumbersome’ is a good word for the prose. The Chapter Two which was a short story that Lerner had published in the New Yorker didn’t fit with the rest of the novel. Drug taking scenes in novels usually don’t work for me, and they didn’t work for me in ’10:04′. The story probably would have worked better as a more traditional novel about a pretentious hypochondriac, sort of like ‘Confederacy of Dunces’. As it was, I wasn’t in on the joke.

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  3. This sounds ghastly! I have vaguely heard of Ben Lerner, but am definitely not willing to spend time on meta-dentistry. I did like My Struggle Vol. 2, but haven’t gone back to the first part. Somehow it looks like more work, starting with something or other about blood. I get sick when I think of blood…

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  4. Hi kat,
    I usually avoid novels that have the word ‘Blood’ in the title. There are a lot of them. I read My Struggle, Vol 1, and I’m pretty sure that is enough for me.
    The problem with metafiction tends to be that if someone is going to write about themselves, they better not come across as too self-centered.

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