By Nick Chhoeun
“The future which is necessarily a fiction—it literally hasn’t happened yet—so intensely determines the texture of the present. In that sense, we always live in relation to a fiction.”
This is how Ben Lerner describes his 2014 novel, 10:04, in an interview with The Public podcast. And indeed, this novel is a metafiction in which we follow the main character in a self-conscious examination of his past, present, and future. The story is set in New York City and bookended by Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. Lerner gives us fragments of events in the main character’s life and he constantly reflects on his future based on what he is currently experiencing and the events of his past.
Our protagonist is diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition that may cause his aorta to burst at any moment. After he receives this diagnosis, he is asked by his best friend to be a sperm donor for her. Before we find out what comes of this ordeal between friends, Lerner presents events from the past and present of his character that help us understand our protagonist’s struggle with time.
The novel jumps around with many events such as: a major novel advance the protagonist received based on the success of his previous novel, an odd relationship with a love interest, a whole short story the protagonist published in the New Yorker, his experience at a volunteer grocery store, and constant references to art and time. Sometimes we are unaware of who is speaking or where we are in the story until we are many pages into a new section.
The time 10:04 addresses the novel’s central theme: time. It is the time displayed on the Hill Valley Court House clock tower in Back to Future just before lightning strikes and brings Marty McFly back to the present. It is also a reference to Christian Marclay’s video art “The Clock.”
Lerner’s novel is rich with effective dialogue. We also get numerous stories from major characters and acquaintances, with whom the protagonist interacts, that also show the impact of self-consciousness and time. Eventually, through these dialogues, our main character reaches an understanding of his own state of mind and how he plans to handle the future.
Lerner explores the mind of a man who is aware that his life can end at any moment because of his condition. But he also seems to argue that everyone is confined by this awareness because of the unpredictability of life and how it can end unexpectedly. 10:04 is a brilliant novel that uses time and self-consciousness as central motifs to unravel the past, present, and future of the protagonist.
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.