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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Stories within the story of Ben Lerner's 10:04, and what they mean

Just to try to give you an idea: Ben Lerner's 10:04 (the title references the moment in time when the clock freezes in Back to the Future, shooting the protagonist into the past) is a novel about the writing of a novel (the one we're reading) generated by a book advance from from a publisher based on the author's (Lerner's) New Yorker story (included in toto in the novel - I blogged on it when it was published in the NYer about 2 years ago) that author intends to use to pay for the process of insemination of his best friend (not girlfriend) who wants to have a baby "by" him. So the novel we are reading, supposedly, is the cause of the generation of a child who will have uncertainty as to the role or even the identity of his/her father. This is the kind of endless looping of this novel and of Lerner's mind and narrative technique: though we are reading fiction, an account of a life, our doing so contributes to the generation of a life - which of course leads him to think about not only what is fiction (the novel we're reading? the story within the novel? is the "whole thing" made up - maybe there is no impregnated friend?) but what is a life, what does it mean to live a life: our lives are made up of memories - our entire life story is like a novel told only to ourselves - but how reliable are these memories, and if not reliable, which they generally are not, what is it that we even know about our lives, or anyone's life. (In my view, it's the mission of the novelist to find out the answer to this - though 10:04 is more questions and "thought experiments" than answers, narrative, character - as BL is well aware - it's still far more provocative than almost anything else you'll read in contemporary fiction.) BL is also fascinated, not to say obsessed, with the nexus of world capitalism - with many references to and meditations on the value of art, the provenance of our food, the labor system that seems to consign Spanish-speaking servants and wait staff to fill the water glasses of the well-to-do in the finest of restaurants. The BL does not build 10:04 into a conventional narrative, he uses the loose yet overlapping form of this novel to embrace a number of mini-narratives: his search for the daughter of a favorite professor, only to learn he has no daughter; a fellow co-op volunteer who tells him of her recent discovery that the supposed father is not her genetic father, leading her to question her lifelong ethnic identity, his father's account of being forced to choose between two simultaneous funeral services and his tearful struggle to get back to DC to attend his own mother's service - these embedded stories seem to have in common a sense of missing out on key elements of one's own family structure, one's autobiography - and to hint at the sub-theme of this novel that our life consists of an endless repetition of the same events, though they are oddly different in each iteration.

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