A Roam with a View

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

The cover of 10:04: A Novel

PEOPLE HAVE discussed their plans to procreate—or skipped the discussion altogether—under many circumstances, but Ben and Alex, characters from Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, are, to my knowledge, the only two who have started planning their family while staring at a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both of them are looking at Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc, a painting about reaching into the future, as Ben notes in one of his many essayistic set pieces, when Alex broaches the subject. Their placement is significant: “Our gazes were parallel, directed in front of us at canvas and not at each other,” Ben reflects. This is not a sexual gaze. Ben and Alex are best friends, not lovers, and they plan to get pregnant via artificial insemination (as Alex says, “fucking you would be bizarre”). Nor is it a plan confined within the circle of a marriage in which adult visions of the future, usually based on notions of family developed in the past, compete. These two prospective parents spend the novel looking ahead—negotiating, sure, but mostly by talking about and comparing what they see in front of them. “We would work out my involvement as we went along,” Ben says.

10:04 seeks out a free-range and functional style of kinship. The notion of democratic, improvised parenthood will, like most ideas that the novel raises, come under close and sometimes comic scrutiny, but it signals a crisp departure from the conflicts that drive so many family narratives. “Families hold each other in an iron grip of definition,” remarks a character in Paula Fox’s acidic portrayal of parental sadism, The Widow’s Children. “One must break the grip, somehow.” As Fox’s novel relentlessly reveals, loosening the hold can prove difficult; adult children may escape their childhood homes but not their pasts. This sense of inescapability tends to shape novels: Marriage plots, breakup stories, chronicles of childhood resentments fall into a groove, becoming cyclical, closed, renewing and reviewing the dramas of the past.

Lerner might miss out on some narrative tension by sidestepping these fraught dynamics, but his relaxed depiction of family bonds also affords his novel a rare formal flexibility and free-associative quality, one that has been rightly compared to Sebald, although Lerner’s ramble has a playfulness of its own. 10:04 evokes a sense of connectedness in its linked meditations on Occupy Wall Street, Walt Whitman, Donald Judd’s sculptures, and Christian Marclay’s montage film The Clock. Ben’s thoughts about family are fully integrated into each of these motifs. (Unlike writers who portray child rearing as an albatross, Ben sees parenthood as a continuation of his art, revealing his plans to pay for IUI using the advance he’s received for his novel-in-progress.) As the title indicates, 10:04 is about time, and this theme, too, is exhibited in Ben’s meditations on family, particularly in his thoughts about Back to the Future and that film’s suggestion that small changes in the past can drastically affect the present.

The tensions of 10:04, a metafiction that frequently dwells on forgeries and falsehood, emerge from Ben’s finely tuned theories and his fear that they will crumble in practice. If the past, and stories, are so important to a family’s future, what will his and Alex’s story for their child be? There is, early on, something a little too tidy about their arrangement, a fact that isn’t lost on our hyperanalytical narrator. This is an account of speculative parenting, and its limitations are apparent in Ben’s comically stilted explanation to an imaginary daughter: “Your mother and I loved each other, but not in the way that makes a baby, so we went to a place where they took part of me and then put it in part of her and that made you.” As the reality of family looms, so does Ben’s craving for a firmer definition of his role in it all. “Okay, but your whole plan only kind of involves me—my level of involvement to be determined, whether I’m a donor or a father,” he says to Alex. “You’re asking me to be a flickering presence.” Ben is hilariously good at mocking the privileged, self-centered child-rearing methods of some Brooklyn parents, whose children go to expensive schools and “had never so much as sipped a high-fructose carbonated beverage containing phosphoric acid and E150d.” But he knows that as an actual father he too could fall under the sway of parental aspiration: “How would Alex, or Alex and I, deal with [navigating New York City schools], if we reproduced? If I had enough money for private school, was I sure I wouldn’t be tempted?”

Can Alex and Ben’s plans remain parallel and free of conflict? Mostly, but this requires the maintenance of some distance. After some negotiation, Alex and Ben have sex, though it remains, in Ben’s word, “unromantic”: They laugh, and imagine they are with someone else. Just like the scene at the Met, they do not look at each other: “Before I could take in the view of her strong body, she pressed the heel of her palm hard into my chin and, perhaps wanting to avoid my face or gaze, pushed my head back so that my eyes were directed toward the wall behind me.” This is perhaps a bit cool, but it is also an important factor in 10:04’s Whitmanesque expansiveness and its refusal to treat the family as a closed circuit. When Alex does get pregnant, she and Ben visit the doctor in Manhattan. It is just after Hurricane Sandy, and with the subways shut down and no cabs to be found, the concerned Ben walks with Alex back home, over the Brooklyn Bridge, echoing (so many echoes) the parenting that it turns out he’s been doing all along: tutoring a third-grade boy, caring for a vomit-covered and very freaked-out young man who has snorted too much ketamine. The scene conveys overwhelming tenderness, possibility, and love. 10:04 opens with a short section that ends: “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” If Lerner continues to write about Ben in future novels, it will be interesting to see how his best intentions arrange themselves around the presence of a flesh-and-blood child.

Michael Miller is an editor at Bookforum.