Say you’re a writer – a poet, if you’re totting up outputs, but a poet whose sole novel did well, really well as far as the review-rankings of the literati go, a writer who’s since had a story in The New Yorker, a writer who’s being nudged towards toning down the PoMo self-awareness shtick for novel two, but who’s being offered ‘a strong six figure advance’ if you can pull it off: ‘describe faces’, they’re telling you, make your protagonist ‘undergo a dramatic transformation’. So, say, then, you’re Ben Lerner, and you’re producing the book to follow Leaving the Atocha Station and you’ve had that TNY story – which they’re making you shoehorn into the new novel – and you’re not, as anyone who’s read the first novel will guess, overly predisposed to writing the kind of book where faces are meticulously sketched and protagonists develop through five-act structures and emotional catharsis: so, then, you write a book where the dude’s got this book to write but instead he writes this other one, not a book about literary forgery, as per the plan, but one about how he’s bewildered about how to write a book and he can’t do faces and he’s super-concerned with the notion, not of massive structural shifts, pace the five-act structure, but of how life can shift in such a tiny way that by the end, ‘everything will be as it is now, just a little different’. Well, there’s 10:04: a thoughtful meander through the interstices of reality and fiction where although a lot of stuff happens, not a lot changes, but everything, finally, gets a little repositioned.
It’s a semi-sequel to his first novel, in that the two books’ protagonists could be the same guy, though it’s not made explicit, or at least the second guy is the guy who authored the first guy, but, anyway there’s no imperative to read the earlier novel first – though we’d recommend it – because, as you might guess, neither are not exactly plot-driven. Still, they’re thematically twinned: both feature, as well as the poet-novelist (anti)hero, a considerable infusion of fine art, an obsession with the artistic process, and a focus on community, though where Leaving the Atocha Station was all about isolation and estrangement, this one’s asking how one might deal with participating in a community. The book features (in some of its best comic scenes) the Park Slope Food Co-op, as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a section of it is set in Marfa, Texas, at Donald Judd’s ranches, where the book’s narrator has gone on a writing residency, and so we get, in amongst some excruciatingly brilliant party scenes and a meditation on the unexpected power of Judd’s own work, a take on the artist as a member of a wider grouping of sort-of-isolated, sort-of-networking creatives. And his experiences of being wined and dined as an up-and-coming writer contribute to this effect, much as they also add to the text as a complex exploration of professional, social and familial anxiety. One of the various narrative strands involves the narrator’s best friend asking him to donate sperm so she can get pregnant, so there’s a lot about parenthood and responsibility. Meanwhile our guy has found out he’s got a rare heart condition which means he could die on the spot, so mortality is bound tightly into the mix, too. It’s complicated, is what were saying. And what happens? Not a lot, as you might expect. Ultimately, there are no ‘dramatic transformations’; things change, sure, but in a minor way, in a minor key, and end up ‘just a little different’. And Lerner wants us to think about these small changes: is it good, or real, or true, or terrifying, that small shifts can change everything? Or is it a comfort that there’s rarely a one-eighty flip and an exploding car?: would I be a bad parent? What if I die? Who can’t relate to that?
Any Cop?: As long as you’re not really into carefully described faces and characters who learn their lessons, this is totally worth a shot; just be patient with it and go with Lerner’s pretty weird flow.