Bookforum talks with Ben Lerner

10:04: A Novel BY Ben Lerner. Faber & Faber. Hardcover, 256 pages. $25.

10:04, Ben Lerner’s ingenious new novel, is a Sebaldian book made from starkly American material. As in Sebald, time haunts 10:04’s narrator. But instead of being haunted by an awful, crumbling past, à la Austerlitz, the narrator of 10:04 is swamped by a rising simultaneity; by pasts, presents, and futures happening all at once. Hurricanes, real and fake, interrupt New York. Inequality spreads and mutates. A pigeon hilariously, sadly eats a Viagra pill. As the Lerner-like narrator tries to write and to help his friend conceive a child, the climate warms.

“In reality, of course, whenever one is imagining a bright future,” Sebald writes in Rings of Saturn, “the next disaster is just around the corner.” At first glance, this hammy gloom seems very Lerner. But in 10:04, Lerner builds a creeping sense of chaos only to stage a handful of escapes from it. As the novel slides from Googleable fact to published fiction, from Reagan to Whitman to Michael J. Fox, it lightly transmutes the familiar. We recognize some material from thirty years ago; other material from the book itself, thirty pages ago. If we are able to see things a little differently, the novel seems to say, if amid the chaos we can locate pockets of potential—for connection, for collectivity—then there’s hope. Where Sebald mourns what has been lost in translation from life, Lerner steadfastly seeks what might be found.

Historically, writers have troubled the fact-fiction border to warn of the limits and pitfalls of fictionalizing. One thinks of Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina’s fateful over-identification with heroines of novels they read. In Lerner’s book, fictions are dangerous, too. One character painfully learns that her father's being her father is a fiction. The novel ends with the inane, mythic charisma of Ronald Reagan, whose fictionalizing Lerner sees as globally catastrophic. But as Lerner unpacks Reagan’s galvanic nonsense, one feels a surprising air of optimism, a forward momentum. A slogan of Gramsci’s comes to mind: pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will. The novel ends with Reagan but arrives there through Whitman. Passing from a utopian pole of collectivity to a cynical one, the book unveils their formal kinship. If Reaganite fictions were dangerous to the dispossessed, the novel seems to say, why can’t our fictions be dangerous to the unjust present?

What was the inciting impulse behind 10:04? I was struck by the way you braid dissonant orders of time, almost as an organizing principle.

I’m increasingly aware that the story I tell about how a book comes to be is just another fiction—I mean it’s something I invent, however involuntarily, alongside the book or after it, and so I don’t really trust my own account of incitement or impulse. And it’s even more confusing in this instance because 10:04 narrates its own construction, talks about how it came to be written in lieu of the book for which the narrator received an advance. Certainly I was—personally and literarily—interested in all these different and intersecting orders of temporality: the duration of a poem or a body or a city or an empire and so on. I wanted to track what the present feels like in relation to those shifting conceptions of the future or their foreclosure. I can definitely say that I was resolved to write a book that was engaged with the insanity of the present without just mapping the grounds of despair.

Did you find a particular book or thinker about time especially helpful while writing?

I can’t even say for sure when I started writing this book. For instance, I wrote the poem that forms part of it long before I had any intention of writing the novel that surrounds it—the same with some of the ideas about art. I don’t know how to date its conception. Certainly Whitman’s thinking about poetic address as fundamentally an address to the future is everywhere in this book—they way he is always projecting himself forward. How does an artwork change when it doesn’t have any confidence in that kind of intergenerational transmission? Lots of poets and thinkers about poetry were influences: Lyn Hejinian or Sharon Cameron or Michael Clune, to name the few whose books I can see from where I’m sitting. And those thinkers like Walter Benjamin who distinguished between the empty clock-time of capitalism—one thing after another, just more and more stuff—and what he called “messianic time,” where the possibility of redemption is immanent in the present, where time has a fullness, a plenitude. But then, all great writing is in some sense about time, isn’t it? Organizing or reorganizing it narratively—or trying to escape narrative altogether through some lyric event.

Do you have a favorite word for “timeframe”?

Maybe “duration,” which I think I used above—Bergson’s sense that you can’t measure lived time with mathematical abstractions because “inner duration” is made up of memory, which brings the past into the present? “Without this survival of the past into the present there would be no duration, but only instantaneity.” Some version of this notion of duration is active in most of the books I love.

How did the novel’s structure come to you?

Not all at once, that’s for sure. This is a big question and I feel the novel itself is the closest I can come to an answer. I knew pretty early on that I was interested in the weird status in our lives of things we thought were facts that turn out to be fictions: what happens to our memory of the camaraderie before a storm if the storm never makes landfall; what happens—as in Noor’s story—when you base your identity on false paternity; what happens when you fall in love with the daughter of your mentors only to find out they don’t have a daughter; what happens when you work up the courage to confront somebody on the phone only to discover after the fact that the call was dropped; etc. None of those things is real—the storm, your paternal heritage, the daughter, the confrontation—but they’re not nothing. They’re fictions with real effects, and that’s one of the major themes in the book: how reality can flicker—how there are events that both happened and never occurred. So I just mean to say that’s one structuring element, the repetition of that concern.

How do you compare the experience of writing 10:04 to that of Leaving the Atocha Station?

Leaving the Atocha Station was one voice, willfully solipsistic, very young. There are more stories and voices in 10:04 and an avowed effort to move from an account of social dissimulation to the imagination of social possibility. But you asked about the “experience of writing”; I don’t know: all the contingencies of other kinds of experience inflect the experience of writing. I was in Brooklyn and not Pittsburgh; Ariana was pregnant; etc. But like I said before, I wrote parts of this novel before I conceived of it as a novel, which makes this question interestingly hard to answer.

Has having a daughter changed the way you think about writing?

I don’t think so, but I don’t pretend to know.

Do you see your prose and poetry as separate projects?

I see my poetry as informing my prose in a literal (and, the dictionary tells me, obsolete) sense: “imparting form to.” I mean that in the two novels the structural relationship between the prose and the poems and the ideas about poetics is key to the larger architecture of the book. It’s all one body of work to me, and language and ideas circulate across the genres, but, that said, the compositional spaces feel totally distinct when I’m inside them.

In the future, do you intend to write more of one than the other?

I have learned not to trust my intentions at all, given that I didn’t intend to write either novel. Right now I’m working on an essay and a poem. I suppose I intend to write more poems. I have the sense that these two novels might form part of a trilogy.

In your recent review of My Struggle, you write that Knausgaard “barely adjudicates significance.” 10:04 seems to model how this adjudication happens. To me, your book ends not because it can’t go on, as Knausgaard says about the end of My Struggle, but because it can. Does that ring true? Do you feel any sense of kinship to My Struggle?

That’s a really lovely notion—a book ending not because it can’t go on but because it can. I’m not sure I know exactly how you mean that, but I like it and it rings true because I think of the ending as a threshold of possibility and not a point of exhaustion. (There’s a way that exhaustion is just another kind of closure, as false and total in its way as a Victorian novel that makes sure everybody is properly married at the end.) I really don’t feel any kinship to My Struggle, although I think it’s remarkable.

Why do you think so many novels popular in literary circles today investigate this border between fact and fiction?

Haven’t novels always been about that border in a certain sense? I’m not saying that the anti-fictional stance of fiction doesn’t undergo change, but so many canonical novels are about how unrealistic and potentially dangerous fiction is. Don Quixote goes crazy from reading; it basically kills Madam Bovary. They’re about how outmoded literary conventions can’t take the measure of the real world—“Life isn’t like fiction,” fiction has been saying forever. There’s also a sense in which the fact-fiction border stuff is just a repetition of the classic Modernism-Realism debate. The conventional Realists say they’re committed to reality whereas the Modernists are decadent formalists and then the Modernists respond that realistic fiction is no longer realistic and formal experimentation is necessary to adapt to new cultural conditions. And then the whole process repeats. Surely the current fascination with this question has to do with the contemporary proliferation of simulacra and the Internet exhibitionism of so-called social media—has to do with how the fact-fiction border is blurrier than ever in our daily lives. But for my part I don’t think it’s a very interesting conversation until distinctions are made between why and how one book or another activates or troubles that border. Because I think it can be done to great effect or it can be done in a lazy way that justifies bad writing by claiming to keep it real.

How does 10:04's blurring of fact and fiction relate to its imagining or modeling of social possibility?

Insofar as the future is a fiction that inheres in the present I think that the present is always a blur of fact and fiction. I don’t really understand the concept of “facts”—that’s just news, noise. “Truth” must be something like the meaningful organization of facts, the shifting relations between them, and so it always has to be imagined, constructed. I use “fiction” to indicate something like our powers of re-description—and one goal of this book is to see the glimmer of social possibility in its perverted forms: bundled debt, the vast arterial network of traffic, etc.

Both you and John Berger work in multiple genres, and write books that merge political materialism with formal play, and harmonize a commitment to art and politics. Is Berger an influence?

He’s tremendously important to me—his essays first, but his novels, too. Not that there’s a clear distinction between them. What Berger shows me is how a commitment to left politics, far from being incompatible with an attention to aesthetic experience and the sensual world, demands it—that politics has to be about harnessing the libidinal and the beautiful and not only about abstract categories. I was really affected by being in his presence for a few days while I was finishing this book: It’s not just the force of his eloquence; it’s the force, the activity, of his listening. The quality of his attention refreshes everybody’s thinking.

10:04 ends with words from Ronald Reagan’s February 1986 State of the Union. Can you discuss the role he plays?

There’s an important scene in the novel where the narrator attributes his interest in poetry to Reagan’s televised address after the Challenger explosion—a disaster that figures in the novel in various ways. (I won’t try to summarize that whole narrative here.) The novel also makes mention of how Reagan was referenced in Back to the Future, a movie that’s everywhere in this book, linking up with its concerns about time and memory and collective fantasy. Do you remember the scene? Marty is trying to convince Doc that he’s from the future and Doc asks who the President is in 1985 and Marty says Reagan and Doc is incredulous, “Ronald Reagan? The Actor? Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?” This was the first time I learned as a kid that Reagan had been an actor—the moment that I first sensed that American politics and Hollywood were indistinguishable. And in the 1986 State of the Union, Reagan quotes Back to the Future itself; it’s a feedback loop. It’s a symbol of the interpenetration of fact and fiction—which as we’ve discussed is one of the book’s chief concerns—in American politics, a blurring that’s of course had disastrous effects. Also, he gave that State of the Union speech on my birthday, not that that really maters.

There’s also a way that Whitmanic address and “Reaganic” address are related in this book—their voices are collapsed in the novel’s last line. They both used the second person in powerful ways—Reagan’s speeches a kind of perverted version of the Whitman’s poems.