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Essay

Ovid and Marty McFly

How Ben Lerner’s new novel dissolves into a poem.
Beth Fladung B&W

10:04, the new novel by the poet Ben Lerner, is a poem in the form of a novel, an intricate and difficult poem in the form of what is in many ways a straightforward story. This makes the work easy to feel and very hard to explain, because its achievements as a work of fiction—the felt truth of its plot, the depth of its main character, the incisiveness of observation, and the empathy implicit in the pacing of its narrative and thoughtful comic prose—on their own reveal little of the poetry that animates them. They are the marionettes, not the strings.

In the middle of 10:04, its fictional author is sitting with his agent in an upscale restaurant near the High Line in Manhattan. “Just remember,” she tells him, “this is your opportunity to reach a much wider audience.” He has just signed a contract to write a book that may or may not become the book we’re reading, a lucrative deal on the strength of the critical (if not commercial) success of his first novel, published by a small press, and of his story that The New Yorker ran afterward. Bear with me here. The aforementioned story, “The Golden Vanity,” which is the second section of 10:04 and which The New Yorker did actually run roughly two years ago, is itself about the unexpected critical success of a preternaturally accomplished poet’s first novel and the relationship between his life and that of his persona in the novel.

He and his agent are eating baby octopuses that were massaged to death with unrefined salt. “You have to decide who you want your audience to be,” the author’s agent tells him. (Neither of them has a name.) “Develop a clear, geometrical plot; describe faces, even those at the next table; make sure the protagonist undergoes a dramatic transformation.” Be conventional. “An author changes into an octopus,” says the author eating octopus. “He travels back and forth in time.”

“I’m going to write a novel that dissolves into a poem,” the author says finally, “about how the small-scale transformations of the erotic must be harnessed by the political”—a work of art and not a product, something for readers of poetry and not for the haute bourgeoisie, whose voices in the restaurant begin to blend with his. He doesn’t want luxury to massage him to death.

The scene is striking not only for the absurdity of asking an experimental poet to write a conventionally realist novel but for the extent to which he really does take her advice and, as irony follows irony, make his novel into a poem. He draws you in with a story that takes you through a poem if you follow it. The book never loses the trappings of fiction—a compelling protagonist clearly (if not optically) described growing to accept responsibility and love—but it leaves you with something stranger than fiction because of what it takes to make sense of the story. The plot is always about the creation of the plot, and you have to follow the perpetual distinguishing and blurring of creator and creation, leaving you as lost in beautiful loops of self-consciousness as the author is, as alive as he is to our constant making and unmaking of fictions for and of ourselves. You’re made to feel not only the sympathetic distance of fiction but the depth of the author’s self-awareness as if it were yours, as you do when you read Lerner’s poems.

It’s counterintuitive that Lerner’s other novel, the critically successful Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), is at once the less conventional of the novels and the less poetic. But that sort of intuition usually rests on the faulty idea that literary conventions, by setting up readers’ expectations, restrict readers’ experience to the bounds of what they expect. You need to set up expectations if you want to subvert them, as 10:04 does in the way that the best of his poems do, by dislocating you into his conflicts with himself. The effort to make the work cohere becomes an experience far more revealing than that of what coheres in the work. And what demands interpretive effort in 10:04 is its plot, a convention Lerner’s first novel lacks.

There’s a clear narrative in Leaving the Atocha Station, to be sure, a picaresque of poet-protagonist Adam Gordon moving to Madrid on the equivalent of a Fulbright, lying his way through the city, and realizing that his sense of his own fraudulence is fertile ground for his poetry. Yet the story lacks the consequentiality of plot, the sense of things happening to characters in response to their decisions and of characters changing in kind. The novel makes a joke out of hinting again and again that Gordon’s decisions will matter only to show that they don’t, as he caroms between women who take him around Spain and let him know that he’s better than he thinks he is at speaking Spanish and writing poetry. “I didn’t think I’d undergone much change,” he says at the end of the novel.

Without the sense that his decisions matter that much, there’s no need to feel that much for a character or put yourself in his shoes, to empathize or sympathize deeply. You don’t have to invest yourself, and can observe at arm’s length Gordon’s experience of coming to understand and write poetry and his experience of life as poetic, overlapping sentences on Instant Messenger–like line breaks of verse and imprecise translations of Spanish like lines with multiple meanings. (“She [a woman talking to Gordon] might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child”—if the right interpretation doesn’t matter for him, why should it matter to you?) The book is really a didactic satire, thoughtfully mocking the poet’s pretensions as he professes ideas about poetry straight out of Lerner’s essays and poems. This sort of story is fittingly light for the young American abroad who takes himself and his actions too seriously, but his ideas about poetry are so inconsequential to his poetic successes that one can easily take what the novel says of poetry as just part of another very good joke.

The book shares the weaknesses and some of the strengths of Lerner’s first two books of poetry, The Lichtenberg Figures (2004) and Angle of Yaw (2006), tours de force of disjointed and whimsical satires punctuated by occasional earnestness and the latter book’s “Didactic Elegy,” which is itself titled didactically and which Adam Gordon echoes often. The books differ widely, the former a sonnet sequence and the latter composed mostly of prose poems, but they both sound like the work of a young man observant enough to show us all sorts of cultural ironies and shallowness and cynicism and other ways in which our habits of thinking and speaking can do violence to how we’d like to live, but whose ironies, for all their range and brilliance, model no ways to live differently. “Orlando imbued my body with erotic significance / by beating it with a pistol.” “When a longing exceeds its object, a suburb is founded.” And “Bourgeois spectator forms”—such as what Lerner calls the optically realist novel, perhaps—“have supplanted the music of the salon.” Satire and didacticism are two sides of a coin here—the self discontented with others, and the standards he holds, stated flatly because he can’t meet them in his own actions.

One can imagine that Leaving the Atocha Station is how the speaker of the first two books would sound if he were to pour his torrents of humor on himself, especially because Lerner, by the time he wrote his first novel, had abandoned his comic and critical distance in a book of poems that embodied his sense of how to live in light of his criticisms. The book, Mean Free Path, published in 2010, is an earnest attempt to express love, which, to Lerner, is hopeless. The mind wanders and doubts itself; the words replace the beloved with an image of her and emotions with the emotions it wants to have had or that have been sold to it.

    Why am I always

asleep in your poems
    Soft static falling through
The life we’ve chosen
from a drop-down menu
of available drives. Look at me
Ben, when am I
    This isn’t my voice

The book puts you in the position of the speaker trying and failing to express his love, with poems whose incoherence makes them resist paraphrase, like love, but whose associative beauty still evokes the love you can neither express nor make sense of. You’re left with the feeling of something overwhelming that evaporates on your breath.

10:04 likewise sets itself up to dislocate its readers into an experience its words can’t directly describe. Its setup is the novelistic equivalent of entrancing incoherent lines: a plot that draws you in and carries you off, such that your disorientation in making sense of the plot is what lets you experience the sense of a hopeful time in the midst of decay that the author is preoccupied with. The book adapts the form of Mean Free Path to prose fiction, an adaptation that, even if you doubt that it amounts to poetry per se, undeniably feels in its arc of experience much like the poems in Mean Free Path. No one who hadn’t written those poems could have written it.  

The heart of the plot is a love story. The author’s best friend wants to get pregnant, and she, Alex, wants the author to donate his sperm. There are complications; the author is casually sleeping with a talented and emotionally distant artist named Alena, but it’s clear to everyone but the artist and Alex that they love each other and should be in love. He’s measured and droll in general but alternately caustic and vulnerable around her, as he is to himself. He tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear while she sleeps through a storm; she opens her eyes.

The plot is a set of clear contrasts—Alex or Alena, child-rearing or continued self-involvement, his sickness or his health, which turns on whether his heart is literally swelling too much. There’s also the question of what kind of novel he’ll write (or what kind of novel he’s written), literary or commercial, whether motivated by the choice between “a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market” and “the fantasy of coeval readership,” or by that between art and capital.

Having abandoned the idea of writing a book about an author who forges letters to himself from dead poets for the sake of selling the rights to his archive—and having, one assumes, grown closer to embracing responsibilities toward a broader audience and a new generation—the author describes the book he says we’re reading:

I decided to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them; I resolved to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.

This looks entirely convincing until you recall that the novel you just read the first four fifths of is about both the potential of literary fraudulence and the extent to which Lerner and the author fabricated their pasts. The interpretation flickers and fades as you believe and then doubt that the book he decides to write is the book you’re reading. It changes your sense of the past, as it changed his, a fiction within a fiction and also a fiction to him. It is itself one of the “multiple futures” the book is alive with.

This sort of ars poetica is one of the ways in which the book’s main tension, between the author as the creator of the book and as its creation, alters your sense of time. The book’s many repetitions of words and ideas do the same, because they both interpret the author’s experience and help to create it, much as you construct your sense of the novel out of interpreting the repetitions given to you. And the book is so dense with repetitions pregnant with meaning that, having invested yourself in trying to make sense of them, you come to remember the words and ideas associatively, as parts of your memory more than as parts of the plot. The effect is much like that of the countless parts of Lerner’s poems that tease at experiences obliquely until, feeling the overlaps in experience but unable to say quite why, you take on the split point of view of a number of blind men trying to describe an elephant. As in those poems, the author’s past (or his fiction of it) shades into your own, an experience nowhere more serious and profound than that of what he makes of the 1980s blockbuster Back to the Future.

The novel’s strongest influence is, surprisingly, Back to the Future. You can think of 10:04 as that film if a 21st-century Ovid had written it. (10:04 is the time on the clock tower when Doc sends Marty back to 1955, for instance.) No one in the novel travels in time or turns into an octopus, but the book helps you to feel the exceptionally subtle ways in which the most “small-scale transformations” of your sense of time past and time future can ineffably metamorphose your sense of yourself and the present.

The film is undeniably cheesy, the sort of commercial artifact a younger Lerner would’ve lampooned for mediating our inner lives. It’s also a work of art through which the author can make sense of his experience and that he can evoke in something close to collective memory. The book, like the film, is about how you experience the world through your sense of the past and the future, and how you change when you assume more of a parent’s role than a child’s.

The film frames the book. It comes up a few pages in as the author and Alex look at Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc at the Met, in which her arm begins to vanish as she’s called to lead France, much as Marty McFly begins to lose his hand in Back to the Future when it looks as though he’s changed the past so that his parents would never marry and produce him. (The author here is thinking about how the ghostly “presence of the future” feels like the “absence of the future,” and about whether he and Alex, like Marty’s parents, should have a child.)

Toward the end of the book, in the novel’s second storm—storms are as important to the novel as they are to the film—the author watches the scene toward the end of the film in which Marty’s hand begins to disappear before his music brings his parents and him back together, a few pages before the author reveals Alex’s pregnancy, their baby’s translucent skull in an ultrasound, the presence of the future. The last words of the book are also those of the film, although as quoted by Ronald Reagan, who comes up twice in the film: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” The novel ends at roughly 10:04.

Hoping to see this time on the clock tower from Back to the Future, the author goes to see part of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which shows clocks from films at every second of the day. The Clock, the author says, is “a supra-genre that made visible our collective, unconscious sense of the rhythms of the day.” 10:04 would do this with 10:04, ending with the Goldman Sachs tower in the night sky instead of the clock tower, in a vision of hope. Art would coexist with commerce, late capitalism with hope for the species instead of the apocalyptic problems the author preoccupies himself with. It sounds hopelessly glib out of context, but it’s hopeful not because of plot resolution but in spite of it. Your sense of the author’s experience, as distinct from your own, fades into the felt whole of so many of your pasts and futures condensed into an image of the night. Like the bad poetry Reagan quotes in his speech after the Space Shuttle Challenger crash, which the author thinks of as a “bad [form] of collectivity that can serve as [a figure] of its real possibility,” the novel’s ending lets you feel a deep hope that’s entirely out of sync with what we see. The novel dissolves into a poem. You have to experience it.

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