Ben Lerner’s second novel, “10:04,” begins with the Hasidic saying that in the world to come, “Everything will be just as it is now, just a little different.” The opening scene involves a Lerner-inspired character having a celebratory meal with his agent on the occasion of landing a contract for the very book the reader is reading.
Well, not exactly the very book. In one sense, “10:04” is about the book Lerner didn’t write, or is the book Lerner wrote instead of the book he was commissioned to write. The contract is written on the strength of a story the narrator, Ben, published in the New Yorker — but also based on a real story of the same name Lerner actually published in the New Yorker. The novel contains elements of plot, but is as much a meditation on time and the nonlinear nature of plot.
“I feel like we all live by fictions — that the word ‘fiction’ refers to how we organize reality meaningfully,” Lerner said by e-mail. “Some fictions — like the fictions that make capitalism feel like the only possible way of organizing the world — are destructive. But fictions are fragile and contestable, and I like to imagine the novel as a space where we can be made to feel how the future is a fiction that’s always up for grabs.”
Lerner wrote three critically acclaimed collections of poems — including “Angle of Yaw,” a finalist for the National Book Award — before his first novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” was published on many of 2011’s best-of lists and won the Believer Book Award. As in that book, where a character claims to have written a poem by Lerner, there is a sort of dialectic around the merits of each practice: Fiction gives way to poetry, and vice versa, as Lerner optimizes each art form to get at something more fundamental.
“One similarity between poetry and prose for me is that my emphasis when writing fiction is still on pattern and not just conventional plot,” he said. “Repetition, collage, etc. are fundamental devices for me no matter the genre. Editing is different: In poetry I feel like the editing is built in, like I can’t move on from a line until I’ve gotten it right or given it up, whereas in prose I might find myself writing very fast, deferring the question of quality, and then editing slowly over time. But really I have no idea what I’m doing. You discover what’s writable in the act of composition.”
By focusing on that sense of the possible, Lerner is able to contain far more than what is actual. Or, perhaps evoking Whitman, who serves as Ben’s major inspiration, Lerner is able to show that what is actual contains far more than what we suppose. In “10:04,” we re-enter multiple scenes from different vantages, and each time there’s a sense of the Nietzschean return: It may be our nature to experience the same moment infinitely, but part of what makes that moment what it is is its elasticity; what makes that moment the same, but just a little bit different, is our ability to imagine beyond it.
Neither fiction nor nonfiction, or, as accurately, both fiction and nonfiction, the success of “10:04” is in leaving us wanting to do so.
IF YOU GO
Ben Lerner: 7 p.m. Thursday. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F. (415) 742-5833.
Photo by Matt Lerner