Ben Lerner's new novel "10:04" explores the unreliability of time and memory.

The title of Ben Lerner’s new novel “10:04” does not refer to a distinct moment in time but to a multiplicity, not only of other moments but of other temporalities, media, worlds. Lerner’s 10:04 is not quite the same as the 10:04 of his semi-autobiographical protagonist Ben, who inhabits a fictional world that is similar to but not quite the same as Lerner’s. Tomorrow, the 10:04 in Ben’s memory will be slightly different from the 10:04 he actually experiences, having been integrated into a mental narrative that expands and contracts time and truth according to its biases. Ben might write a poem that tampers further with time; someone else might read it later and experience both the time it was written and the time it imagines into existence at yet another time, a third moment constructed of other moments past and present, real and imagined.

Complex stuff, but this isn’t “True Detective”: Lerner’s second novel positions time within a metafictional story that destabilizes all the boundaries we as readers had in place before opening the book. Ben is an author grappling with the reception of his first novel and planning his second, the one we’re reading, written by both “Ben” and Ben Lerner. Set in Brooklyn and situated between Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the story includes the kind of uncomfortable contemporary details that prevent readers from distancing themselves from its reality: Ben serves quinoa to an Occupy protester and outright suggests that the reader might have seen him walking on Atlantic Avenue.

Often with novels that draw heavily from personal experience, misguided readers try to separate fact from fiction, thinking it essential to the text whether the characters are based on real people or certain plot points actually occurred, as if reality might lend some degree of legitimacy to fiction or disprove the creative capabilities of its author. The novel “10:04” wants us to ask this question, although it won’t give us a simple answer. The correlation between Lerner’s life and his protagonist’s isn’t beside the point, but it also isn’t the point.

In the first scene, Ben discusses the possibility of another novel based on a story he wrote for The New Yorker, a situation that not only resembles Lerner’s career but literally replicates it: Part Two of the novel is a direct reprint of “The Golden Vanity,” a “real” short story of Lerner’s the magazine published in 2012. The story transposes events from Lerner’s/Ben’s life, events we (sort of) just experienced in Part One through Ben’s first-person narration, now refigured in the third person in reference to “the author.” Scenes and phrases reappear, sometimes verbatim: His doctor’s office has become a dentist’s, his friend Alex renamed Liza, the weather is always “unseasonably warm.”

The story is a metafiction of Lerner’s life presented as a metafiction of his protagonist’s—not “meta-metafiction” so much as “meta 1 + meta 2.” Even the latter doesn’t quite address the degree of relatedness the stories bear; a better function might be “meta + meta(prime)” or perhaps a version of “six degrees of Ben Lerner” where every link is Ben Lerner.

Narcissistic, sure, but not by accident. Lerner deliberately conflates levels of fiction in order to remove the boundary between them. In “10:04,” art doesn’t imitate life; it is life, and vice versa. Readers certainly have cause for suspicion: The revamped story-within-a-story device could be a pretentious gimmick made unnecessarily confusing in order to appear profound (consider the movie “Inception”). We grow skeptical when a writer’s symbolism gets too abstract or hir language too inflated because we are afraid of being tricked by art, and with good reason. To submit to the power of a work of art is to render oneself vulnerable, so we arm ourselves with doubt against the possibility of being fooled and thus made fools.

But Lerner’s complexity isn’t a result of laziness or pretense, and it isn’t meant to alienate its readers. On the contrary, it implicates them, qualifying thoughts with phrases like “do you know what I mean?” and “would you believe me?” as if Ben is anxious to obtain his reader’s approval. In “Leaving the Atocha Station,” Lerner’s first novel, the narrator Adam Gordon obsesses over the disconnect between his true self and his public persona, desperately sifting through affectations in search of an authenticity even he doesn’t really believe exists. While Lerner’s protagonists use self-awareness to mask their insecurity, their candid narration ultimately reveals sincerity behind the ironic façade.

Of course, Lerner is well aware of this appeal. After discussing his next novel with his agent, Ben realizes what he “should have” said to her: “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously.…I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity.” He reveals his calculations as well as his neuroses, a policy of total honesty that wins readers’ trust despite his unreliable perspective.

Where “Leaving the Atocha Station” explored the idea of being removed from one’s own experience, “10:04” is unsure there was even an experience to begin with. Adam Gordon often feels the “experience of experience” rather than the thing itself, his crippling self-doubt barring him from what he imagines to be a genuine interaction with the world. In “10:04,” Ben feels similarly removed from linear time. He wonders whether the process of memory effectively destroys experience by creating a simultaneous present that is separate but inextricably bound to the original. Under sedation for a dental operation, “the author” of the New Yorker story realizes that “this experience of presence depended upon its obliteration.” He is able to fully live in the present moment only when its ephemerality is certain; because the drugs will prevent the moment from being immortalized in memory, the author is free from the burden of living simultaneously in the present and future. But the drugs don’t deliver, and the author insists: “I remember it, which means it never happened.”

In “10:04,” time is not a linear progression (nor is it a “flat circle” as Rust Cohle of “True Detective” might suggest). Time is a medium like any other, flexible in the way a film or thought can be edited or a society can engineer its reality by rewriting its history. Ben feels disconnected from the world and people around him through the medium of time. At one point he realizes, “Neither Bernard nor Natali [his friends] had ever seemed to exist in time, at least not in the same temporal medium I occupied.”

Throughout the novel he identifies various modes of time, from biological to geological to poetic, differentiated not by scale but by genre. In Jules Bastien-Lepage’s painting of Joan of Arc, Ben observes a “tension between the metaphysical and physical worlds, between two orders of temporality.” In art, as in life, time in not an individual agent but a force embedded in the world that invented it. Lerner collapses these categories in the same way he removes the barrier between fiction and reality: by equating them.

Theories of the multiverse are nothing new; even “Family Guy” has sent Stewie and Brian on a journey through alternate realities. But Lerner puts his money where his mouth is, turning theory into practice by crafting an impressionistic novel whose themes of fluid time correspond with its flexible interpretation of genre.

“I might have mistaken my intensified attention to the wind for intensifying wind,” Ben wonders. But the question is irrelevant; in Lerner’s world, there is no difference.

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