Lerner, Ben. 10:04. Granta, London, 2014. F; 2/20.
This is the second of a “trilogy” by this fortyish author, who turned without exclusion from poetry to fiction in about 2011 and has had plenty of success in both genres. The three books are Leaving the Atocha Station, this one, and The Topeka School. They are all overtly autobiographical, playfully self-referential, charmingly colloquial, and well-written and complex enough to hold interest, but for me repetitive in their tendency to build optimistic excitement at the start but not quite to deliver on expectation somewhere about halfway through. I was all set up for something explosively spectacular and gloriously coherent, and it wasn’t quite there.
The time sequence in the coming-of-age of Lerner’s alter-ego Adam Gordon is checkered, most of the narrative here taking place in Brooklyn and Manhattan probably subsequent to Adam’s mixed (cynical and self-searching) year in Spain described in Atocha. Here he is involved with two women, one a nearly entirely platonic friend with whom he has agreed to father a child by artificial insemination, and the other a real girlfriend who knows how to manipulate him. Adam like Lerner has published one successful book, and is negotiating for a big advance on his second one, but ends up unsuccessful at meeting a necessary deadline.
The title refers to the moment in the movie Back to the Future where Michael J Fox harnesses a lightning bolt to return to his real present. The epigraph here mirrors that experience, telling of the Hassidim (author and protagonist are both Jewish) who speak of a future time where “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” And of course it’s intriguing to reflect that as fictional Adam is the real Lerner – only a little different – as narrator here says:
discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments.
… different identities at different times of course but also a completely different experience of time present (ambivalent) and time past (citable).
For me the dramatic impact of this story, independent of that kind of reality-versus-illusion and nature-of-time type of interest, is as checkered as the time sequences. At one point I yawned and considering skipping ahead as Adam is listening to a coworker’s long tedious narrative of her discovery that her father is not her progenitor. But, persevering, a few pages later Adam reflects on why he became a poet. It was the impact of Ronald Reagan’s speech, written by Peggy Noonan, following the Challenger disaster, where the president (“everybody in (Adam’s) family hated Reagan”) says the country will never forget the Challenger crew “as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’ ”
Then comes a strangely poetic-technical analysis of those quotes of Noonan’s and Reagan’s which are from “High Flight”, a 1941 poem by John Magee. Adam and Lerner are serious about the impact of the pretty straightforward sentimentality of that poem and how through timing and the way it’s conveyed it can make a mighty difference in people’s lives. A minor and largely forgotten poem, reinterpreted in its future with a very different kind of flight in mind are the same words but their meaning is “a little bit different”, and Lerner through Adam says “Let me allow the preposterousness of what I’m saying to sink in: I think I became a poet because of Ronald Reagan and Peggy Noonan.” And because of forgotten poet John Magee.
It is poetry that Adam ends up writing instead of completing his second novel on another (similar to the one in Spain in Atocha) subsidized junket in Marfa, Texas, where he encounters the geometric sculpture of Donald Judd. Adam isn’t impressed:
(Judd’s) desire to overcome the distinction between art and life, an insistence on literal objects in real space—I felt I could get all those things by walking through a Costco or a Home Depot or IKEA…
It seems to be that same desire that preoccupies Ben Lerner in this second novel of his trilogy. And that is interesting, and holds the interest of people like me who feel at times inclined to identify the two. Too bad that a story as charming and clever as this one where the author is dancing around old questions of beauty and meaning, which then doesn’t deliver real dramatic emotional impact, is a disappointment. Somehow if you are a very good writer and preoccupied with exciting ideas – all true of this story and the others in this group – you are making an enticing and serious promise to your readers.
But you have to keep it.