A flickering between truth and fiction

At one point in Ben Lerner’s new book, “10:04,” the narrator visits the studio space of his lover, Alena. Alena’s latest project is curating the “Institute for Totaled Art,” a conceptual art show composed of pieces that, because of damage that renders restoration unfeasible, have been declared to be of “zero value” by an art insurance company. Amongst slashed and torn canvases and broken Jeff Koons pieces, the narrator finds a Cartier-Bresson print that seems to be in perfect condition. While he is unaffected by the other pieces, upon seeing this work the narrator is sent into a critical-theory-inflected state of bliss that would make the German philosopher Adorno blush: “It was as if I could register in my hands a subtle but momentous transfer of weight: the twenty-one grams of the market’s soul had fled; it was no longer a commodity fetish; it was art before or after capital.” This scene, with its quasi-metaphysical artistic transcendence couched in secular, Marxist — and just a touch ironic — terms, is emblematic of Lerner’s undoubtedly clever but ultimately frustrating new book.

“10:04” is the second novel by Lerner, a Kansas-born poet who attended Brown and traveled to Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship. I mention this because his first novel was the runaway indie success “Leaving the Atocha Station,” a novel about a young Kansas-born, Brown-educated poet on a Fulbright in Madrid. Need I say “10:04” is about a poet who had a successful first novel and is surprised to receive a large advance for his second? This is, of course, all part of Lerner’s intention to create a work that is “neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.” The result is a blend of fiction, metafiction, memoir and poetry, the primary and elliptical narrative of which concerns the Lerner stand-in’s anxiety over his recently diagnosed heart condition, his nomination as sperm donor for and by his close friend Alex and his status as literary executor for his ailing mentor. If I were being generous, I’d call it a meditation on the creative process, wherein events that occur on one plane of the “novel” are transmogrified into material for another. The narrator’s heart condition and quickly complicating relationship with Alex are displaced and transformed into elements of the (slightly more) fictional short story that composes the novel’s second chapter, and the form of the narrator’s artist residency in Marfa becomes the content of an embedded long-form poem. If I were being slightly less generous, I’d say the book is a fictionalized memoir padded with previously published material; the Acknowledgements page serves as a kind of medical cross-section: we learn that the embedded short story “The Golden Vanity” was originally published in the “New Yorker,” the embedded long-form poem was completed during his real-life residency in Marfa and published elsewhere; the descriptions of the Institute for Totaled Art overlap with “Damage Control,” an essay on vandalism in the art world originally published in “Harpers.” I could go either way.

However you frame it, the novel does deal effectively with the very real sense of living in anticipation of ecological disaster. The book’s epigraph (attributed to Walter Benjamin) sets its own somewhat woozy thematic key, throughout this quasi-novel, framed by two hurricanes and practically humming with climate-change anxiety. I couldn’t help but think of another, darker Benjamin quote, his famous description of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”: “‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet…The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The narrator, propelled forward by medical and ecological threats that are out of his control, is certainly, like Klee’s angel, obsessed with history and time. His favorite movie is “Back to the Future,” and a visit to Christian Marclay’s visual art piece “The Clock” prompts a meditation on the extra-temporal potential of fiction: “As I made and unmade a variety of overlapping narratives out of its found footage, I felt acutely how many different days could be built out of a day, felt more possibility than determinism, the utopian glimmer of fiction.” Throughout the novel, the narrator seems to experience periods of temporal dissociation, with past, present and future often described as being superimposed on one another. Occasionally these dissociative and utopian tendencies combine and reach a rhapsodic fever pitch that sounds somewhat archaically like the turn-of-the-century modernists’ lyric celebrations of the telegraph: “the rhythm of artisanal Portugese octopus fisheries coordinated with the rhythm of laborers’ migration and the rise and fall of art commodities and tradable futures in the dark galleries outside the restaurant and the mercury and radiation levels of the sashimi and the chests of the beautiful people in the restaurant — coordinated, or so it appeared, by money.”

That final qualifier — “coordinated, or so it appeared, by money” — marks the novel’s other mode of presentation, what I can only describe as narrativised critical theory. When the narrator welcomes into his home a member of Occupy Wall Street, and a reflection on his own altruism prompts a nurturing instinct, he immediately reflects: “So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: you let a young man committed to anticapitalist struggle shower in the overpriced apartment that you rent and, while making a meal you prepare to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household.” This is all tossed off with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, but its effect is still worrying.

Whenever some second-hand Foucauldian analysis occurs in the text — as when the narrator characterizes the tendency of the modern liberal to ascribe social tensions to food- and health-related issues as indicative of “a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety” — I am reminded of a quote by the essayist Marilynne Robinson: “The prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong.” While we know capitalism is not a repercussion-free moral gymnasium, so too, I think, can we on some metaphysical level intuit that to philosophically deconstruct it, to wittily deploy critical theory in order to show the emperor has no clothes, we simply must institute a negative presence — what is only the shadow of the prevailing view of things. Lerner’s decision to “flicker,” to so often present both thesis and antithesis — a real-life situation and its critical theory schematic, a memoir-ish segment and its fictional appropriation — ultimately has a negative artistic effect. It’s obvious Lerner is quite intelligent, and at times his prose is excellent. One wishes he would simply commit and accept the consequences. The “utopian glimmer of fiction” is present in “10:04,” but it’s dim and it won’t stop flickering.

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