What happens at 10:04? Ben Lerner explains

A spoiler first. At 10:04 in Back to the Future, lightning strikes the courthouse clock so it is only at this time that Marty can return to 1985. That’s the time to which the title refers. I know it was killing you.

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 has been on my to-be-read list for months but only now, with the rest of my books packed and ready for my move in two weeks, did I get around to it. I read the enthusiastic reviews about Lerner’s book when it first came out, so I knew it would be great and I knew I wouldn’t have much to add to the conversation. It’s a book for literary fiction lovers, less so for those who require a plot. It’s beautifully and inventively written, it’s funny, it’s everything the reviews said it would be.

This is a New York book. Lerner is a Brooklyn writer, the timing of the story overlaps with Superstorm Sandy, there are galleries, and literary agents, and subway lines you will recognize. While I often complain about the “Brooklyn writer” I think that among other things, this book will remain as a time capsule of a particular moment in New York. 10:04 is too ambitious to be a real commercial success (the author is also a poet, there’s no chance this thing will ever be a bestseller) but I think it stands a chance at attaining longevity and importance with future audiences.

If there’s a through-line, or plot, then it centres around the main, Ben-Lerner-like, character and his decision about whether or not he should help his female best friend have a baby. This story is where the book begins and ends and the idea of becoming a parent contributes to the novel’s preoccupation with the concepts of time and mortality.

To illustrate the passage of time and the limitations of it, the book returns often to seminal events in character’s lives, one of which is the explosion of the Challenger shuttle which the author/character saw on television as a child and which became an important event in the development of his imagination.

As an adult, imagination now fully formed, he often visits Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” and I think knowledge of this piece of art is essential if one hopes to derive pleasure from the novel. If you are somewhere near where this video installation is playing (Montreal, right now) I encourage you to go see it immediately and often. If that isn’t possible please at least read the New Yorker’s profile on Christian Marclay that deals with ‘The Clock’ in detail. Marclay’s work uses pieces of film that reference a particular time of day (a duel at high noon, for example) and splices them together to form a continuous 24 hour film. The piece is only ever shown so that the time shown on screen corresponds to the actual time of day. So if you go at midnight the scenes in the film are all taking place at midnight, and so on. It’s repetitive, hypnotic, difficult, uncommercial, and wonderful in all of the ways Lerner’s novel is wonderful.

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