Fact, fiction or farce? The American comic novel is becoming increasingly hard to define

In a novel as convoluted as Ben Lerner’s 10:04 it’s difficult to know when to laugh, according to Ben Hamilton’s review

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

10:04 Ben Lerner

Granta, pp.256, £14.99, ISBN: 9781847088918

The American comic novel is going through an odd phase. Just lately it seems like anything funny must sneak in behind an abstruse metafictional edifice, deployed, I suspect, by insecure authors who want to retain their jobs as teachers of creative writing. 10:04, Ben Lerner’s lopsided but often electric second novel, is the latest example of the comic genre via subterfuge, sprinkled with tricks and played so deadpan you might not know when
to laugh.

The narrator, who shares a first name with the author, is a resident of a New York City that is battered by storms, vulnerable to hurricanes and hipsters. He has health concerns which require regular hospital visits: first he has a dilated aorta which he thinks could rupture at any moment; second he is planning to donate sperm so that his best friend can have a baby, although he has some doubts about the quality of his essence. He is also a successful writer, with an acclaimed debut novel to his credit and a recently published short story in the New Yorker. It might be important to note here that Lerner himself had an acclaimed first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, and afterwards published a story in the New Yorker (republished in full in this novel, but presented as the narrator’s story).

This is only the beginning of what could be called, depending on the reader’s temperament, either fruitful mischief or wanton reflexivity. Ben is working on a second novel — ‘the book you’re reading now’ — which he describes as ‘neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them’.Obviously this is nothing new. Some of the most highly praised authors of the decade — from Sheila Heti to Karl Ove Knausgaard — apply this method, unable to untether themselves from their own biographies.

It’s possible, however, to grumble about the tiredness of the formula while enjoying almost every page. Lerner is particularly good with dialogue and the pressures of social interaction, even when some of the conversations are imaginary. Exasperated with the needling questions of his potential child (‘What if you have to do IVF to make me?’) Ben eventually responds, ‘I don’t know. Ask your phone.’ Yet when faced with a real-life eight-year-old he finds himself tongue-tied as the young boy lectures him on Joseph Kony and the inevitable ice age:

‘When all the skyscrapers freeze they’re going to fall down like September eleventh,’ he said in his typically cheerful tone, but more quietly, ‘and crush everyone.’

Occasionally the novel tips into the farcical. A terrific scene where Ben finally makes his sperm donation is so much like a sitcom set piece that it made me wonder whether I’d misjudged the manner of the entire book. Later he winds up in Texas on a writers’ retreat, where he crafts an interminable poem rather than the novel for which he has been promised an enormous advance. This, I think, is supposed to be a self-deprecating portrayal of a writer’s wastefulness, but then why does Lerner quote so much of the rather drab verse? And is the verse even meant to be drab? The acknowledgements tell me the excerpts are from a genuine poem, published by Lerner, so I guess not.

Touches of frosty academese are just as disconcerting:

Whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.

Something for postgrads to chew on, I suppose; the rest of us can enjoy the wittier, more invigorating passages.

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