A first novel with glowing endorsements from such literary lights as Jonathan Franzen, Paul Auster, Geoff Dyer, and John Ashbery—what more could a young writer want? Perhaps some work in the New Yorker? Done! Perhaps a second novel published by a larger house? Done! Perhaps some attention at BEA? Done!
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (Faber & Faber, Sept.) is as different from Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) as that book was from the poetry Lerner wrote that preceded it. A professor of English at Brooklyn College and the recipient of honors ranging from National Book Award finalist, Fulbright scholar, and Guggenheim fellow, Lerner says his first ambition, whether with poetry or fiction, “has always been to make art out of words.” What he loves about the novel, he says, is that it can “absorb everything—poetry, art criticism, whatever.”
10:04 has at its center a friendship between the narrator, a writer recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition, and a friend who wants his help getting pregnant. The narrator gets a book advance in part to help pay for fertility treatments, and so the future of his art and the possibility of fatherhood overlap.
“It’s a book about making art and children at a time of great uncertainty,” Lerner says. “My ambition was to capture something about what it’s like to be alive now, when the difficulty of imagining a future changes all of our relationships.”
Lerner says the biggest challenge was how to make the book both very serious and very funny. “Luckily my inspiration often involves my own misadventures, and since I’m good at making a fool of myself, I never lack for comic scenes.”
10:04 is a more emotionally open and more formally daring book than Atocha, though it shares many of the same concerns. “Instead of being in the head of one neurotic narrator,” as Atocha was, “it’s more of a choral portrait. Instead of being about a young artist’s concerns with fraudulence, it’s interested in social and collective possibilities in an era of increasing instability. I hope what both books have in common is a mixture of humor and pathos. 10:04 is ultimately the more ambitious book. I hope it finds its readers.”
Lerner was a featured author at the BEA Bloggers Conference this past Wednesday. Today, at 9:30 a.m., he will be signing ARCs at the Macmillan booth (1739).