Back To The Future With Ben Lerner

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Illustration by Jordan Sondler

In Ben Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, published in 2012, the protagonist Adam Gordon claims to have authored a poem whose text first appears in Lerner’s first book of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures. Gordon is a young American writer loafing in Madrid on a yearlong poetry fellowship; Lerner himself did the exact same thing. The novel won the Believer Book Award and announced Lerner to a wider audience. Leaving the Atocha Station takes its title from a poem of the same name by John Ashbery, who, fittingly, reviewed the book, calling it “an extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.”

Maybe we are each the products of our aggregated inauthenticities. Lerner is primarily a poet, although he’s written criticism as well as fiction. Born in 1979, he grew up in Topeka, Kansas, and attended Brown University. He’s written three books of poetry, one of which, Angle of Yaw, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Currently he teaches in the English department at Brooklyn College.

These are all biographical facts Lerner shares with the unnamed narrator of his new book, 10:04. The novel begins with Hurricane Irene and ends with Hurricane Sandy; in between, the protagonist tutors an eight-year-old Salvadorean child in Sunset Park; masturbates into an in-vitro fertilization vial, having agreed to help his best friend get pregnant (Lerner is a new father); and travels to Marfa, Texas, for a writer’s residency. The book reads like a lightly ironical, thoroughly-modernized Mrs. Dalloway, following a highly-sensitive social observer through the different worlds of a modern metropolis on the verge of collapse. We live in a fragmented society, with a surfeit of details and realities playing out simultaneously; our selves often seem as real in the virtual realm as they do in the physical one. In such an environment, does the concept of authenticity itself obtain?

The substantive tension of Lerner’s work is a dialectic between the impulse to create meaning with language and the fear that any meaning thus authored will necessarily be incomplete. Language can only describe; it cannot fully close the gap between what it wants to do and what it actually can do. But Lerner, if only by choosing to publish rather than destroy what he’s written, suggests that literary effort is worthy, anyway—that he believes in, as Adam puts it, the “profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

10:04 incorporates art, politics, pop culture, critical theory, and social observation in order to examine that profundity. As Lerner theorized in a 2012 interview with Tao Lin in The Believer: “The epic unity of experience… has passed away, and the novel emerges as the dominant literary form of a world in which meaning is no longer immanent.” It feels uncannily of its moment: anxious, erudite, and ultimately sincere in its quest to create and connect through text. As the narrator, “a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid,” projects himself out into the world, through possible futures, and ultimately into language, you might find some flicker of recognition, of possibility. •

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