10:04, by Ben Lerner

Two significant events occur at the start of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. First but mentioned second, the main character (“Ben”) learns he has a permanent heart condition (Marfan Syndrome). Second but mentioned first, he receives a six-figure advance on the strength of a New Yorker story, and celebrates with his agent by eating baby octopus at a high-end Manhattan restaurant.

When his agent asks how he’ll expand his story into a novel, he says/writes, “’I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously . . . I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.’” By and large, in creating 10:04, that’s what Ben/Lerner does.

“The sinking city” refers to a future New York suffering the effects of global warming, a fear expressed by his eight-year-old mentee, Roberto, whom Ben tries to comfort. “’I don’t think there will be another ice age,’ I lied.”

“Cyclonic events” bookend the novel, hurricanes Irene and Sandy. These two could outwardly represent the crisis of the character’s heart condition, and possible imminent death. But both storms fizzle out. He gains solace from a Hasidic story that serves as the book’s epigraph, which ends with the comforting line, “Everything will be just as it is now, just a little different.”

When Ben’s condition is first diagnosed, he seems to project his anxiety onto the baby octopus, blending a description of the octopus with his own numbness and disorientation. Doctors “perform so many measurements according to a nosological program mysterious to me that I felt as if my limbs had multiplied.” One test requires that he sit underwater on a child’s-size seat (Marfan Syndrome is usually diagnosed at an early age).

It can taste what it touches, but has poor proprioception, the brain unable to determine the position of its body in the current, particularly my arms, and the privileging of flexibility over proprioceptive inputs means it lacks stereognosis, the capacity to form a mental image of the overall shape of what I touch: it can detect local texture variations, but cannot integrate that information into a larger picture, cannot read the realistic fiction the world appears to be.

The comic contrast in this scene, the adult in a child’s setting, gets pushed by Lerner’s heightened vocabulary.  It similarly gets ramped up in a later scene in which Ben, having agreed to surrogate fatherhood with a friend, struggles with the details of artificial insemination – i.e. watching porn and jerking off into a cup. The humor recalls Annie Hall and Woody Allen, the neurotic New York Jewish intellectual flailing a broom at a spider in Diane Keaton’s tub. 

Ben’s aorta forces him to come to grips with his own mortality, which has him contemplating both the past and the future. The book’s title is taken from the moment in Back to the Future when lightning strikes the rod on the courthouse, providing the energy needed to send Marty and his DeLorean back to you-know-where.

As Lerner uses it, the title has a second meaning, ironic in that it puts the lie to his stressing several possible futures. For much of the book, the character has his “back to the future” as he revisits childhood memories: This is emphasized by the inclusion of a photo with a caption from Walter Benjamin: “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned.” 

Propel here is echoed in the word papeles when Roberto recounts his anxiety-driven dream: “. . . We have to escape to San Salvador but they have helicopters and night vision and anyway we don’t have papeles so we can’t get anywhere.”Papelos refers to immigration papers his family doesn’t have, but it also symbolizes propellers, which would propel them to safety. 

As he did earlier, Ben calms Roberto’s fears, and in so doing calms his own. This is also true in a late scene with an intern in Marfa (a town whose name ties in nicely with “Marfan Syndrome”) who is suffering from a cocaine overdose. 

With his arm around my shoulder and mine around his waist, I walked him slowly inside, a parody of Whitman, the poet-nurse, and his wounded charge . . . Whitman would have kissed him. Whitman would have taken the intern’s fear of the loss of identity as seriously as a dying soldier’s.

Soon, Ben fully adopts the Whitman role and kisses the intern on the forehead when he’s asleep. He’s worked his way from irony to sincerity.