Most novels fail us in how they depict time. Even books that shuttle from the past to the present — where time is a series of broken arcs — do not grasp the present’s slippery pulse.
Whatever now feels like — banal, speedy, intensely mediated — it is not a stable sensation. Time refuses to be frozen. Acknowledging this truth, however, threatens to undermine fiction’s claim that it can accurately reflect the way we experience our lives.
In his second novel, “10:04,” Ben Lerner, who is also a poet, has boldly written into the heart of this problem in a narrative less concerned with story than with image and idea. The book takes its title from a moment in collagist Christian Marclay’s video installation, “The Clock,” which depicted a 24-hour day by stripping scenes of timepieces from thousands of films.
The work, screened at Lincoln Center in New York City, and which the main character of “10:04’’ goes to see, proves a profoundly disturbing meditation on time. The moment — 10:04 — also happens to be the time when Michael J. Fox’s character is zipped back to 1985 in “Back to the Future.”
In Lerner’s novel, a 33-year-old novelist named Ben has fallen into the orbit of all these concerns. A heart problem means he could die at any moment. His friend, Alex, aged 36, has roped him into being a sperm donor. Meanwhile 21st century Manhattan heaves around them, timeless and crumbling at the same time.
The book opens with the narrator celebrating a “strong six figure” book deal for a follow-up to his first novel, clearly based on Lerner’s much lauded debut. “Leaving Atocha Station.” Ben is feted with a luxurious meal of octopus literally massaged to death, washed down with copious amounts of wine. He has a year to deliver a first draft.
“10:04” unfolds over this period, bracketed by Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. Other than the storms, it is an uneventful year, a Brooklyn year. Ben volunteers at a co-op, attends gallery openings, tutors a Hispanic boy at a school in Sunset Park. At nights he goes out and notices “there seemed to be a competition among hip bars to see who could travel back in time the furthest.”
The artistry in “10:04” — a term with which it would take issue — exists entirely in its arrangement. Instead of a plot, there is an image pattern; instead of linearity the book zooms back and forth in time. There is the author’s voice, sliding back and forth along the register of fiction and nonfiction, sandwiching essays on Ronald Reagan’s speech after the shuttle disaster of 1986 next to vivid scenes of Ben struggling with the upcoming responsibility of his surrogate fatherhood.
Lerner divides the book into five parts, all which move through a series of reveries, the world falling away and then returning with intensely poetic descrptions of New York City at night as Ben surfaces into the present tense. Everyone in the book knows Ben is writing a book and occasionally remarks on how what just happened could wind up as fiction.
The novel is easier to follow than it sounds. Each section contains a stunning set-piece of sustained action, moments in which the world’s disorder becomes sublime rather than anarchic. The author acts as a collector of these moments, its recorder.
In the first section, a hurricane bears down on New York City while Ben and Alex watch movies off a wall; in the next part, the narrator has his teeth extracted and emerges reborn from the haze of drugs; in another section, he takes the boy he tutors to the Museum of Natural History and experiences a spasm of anxiety.
In his late 40s, Philip Roth turned out several books, from “The Counterlife” to “Patrimony,” which attempted to exhaust this postmodern mode. Structurally, they were tremendous successes. But the author could not remain a persistent presence without ultimately degrading the project of fiction, which is to create coherence without provoking the reader’s distrust.
Lerner is a better sentence writer than Roth, however, and his concerns wrap around the modern moment with terrifying rightness. He has less faith in reality, a posture with which a modern reader is apt to identify. Toxins, superstorms, drones filter in Ben’s stream of consciousness. The book muses compellingly on the sustained pressure of apocalpyic thinking, how it bears down on Manhattan in particular.
Most importantly, though, “10:04” describes what it feels to be alive. It is a first-person book so it can only guess at the state of mind of Ben’s friends, chart their orbits and collisions with the narrator. Still, here is a man enmeshed, trying to hold it together. “He felt the world rearrange itself around him,” Lerner writes, a phrase which repeats. The clock turns so fast he has to try to slow it down to figure out what any of it means.
John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”