Malevolent Badger

10-04

Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is a great book for those of us who enjoy a sense of déjà vu, as so much of it is about his previous novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, and so many selections from his new book have been disseminated in major publications: The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review. To increase the sensation of eternal recurrence I gathered with my fellow nebbishes in the Sunset, in the new Green Apple Books (which resembles a slightly misremembered version of the original Green Apple Books) to hear Lerner speak.

My friend Chris and I arrived in time to get premium seats, three rows deep and centered, ready to believe that lightly fictionalized versions of ourselves might appear in a future Lerner novel or, at the very least, a poem. The talent walked directly past us, pausing to kiss the cheeks of some adoring septuagenarians in the first two rows. We’ve all looked at Lerner’s author photo and let me tell you—his eyebrows are really like that: a cartoon villain’s, a malevolent badger’s, the arched backs of two startled black cats.

The parts of the sidelines not taken up by the walkers and wheelchairs of Lerner’s kin filled with fresh-off-the-High-Line hipsters, adjusting square-framed glasses on their sweat-slick noses. The current fashion calls for stern, two-toned frames, a style from the 50’s, or rather from Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. There was a woman with a breaching whale tattoo that you realized was not just a breaching whale but Penguin’s Moby-Dick.

Lerner was in conversation with The Believer editor Dominic Luxford, who almost certainly has an intern who has at some point rejected my poems. The pair was introduced by a slip of a literary boy wearing a cardigan against the 85-degree chill—perhaps he was willfully ignoring the sort of day Lerner in his book refers to repeatedly as “unseasonably warm.” Our California is as tortured by drought as his New York is beset by superstorms.

The discussion commenced with a passage from 10:04 and a question about art versus the image of art—the framed wall coverings in medical offices that Lerner cogently dismisses as literary Muzak. But several duds followed that query: “What are literary taboos?” and “What is the difference between writing poetry and prose?” and “What would you do if you weren’t a writer?” I would have preferred the more topical and hard-hitting: “Do you think the Kansas City Royals are only relevant again because of that Lorde song?” or “Are you being sued by anyone you wrote about in this book?” I wondered if the questions were so rote because, as a poetry editor, Luxford was passive-aggressively upset that Lerner, after Angle of Yaw and Mean Free Path, has left verse behind and is taking a very Cleveland-post-LeBron attitude about it. Lerner took the questions at further and further remove, slipping in a reference to Mikhail Bakhtin and saying “I don’t usually quote Slavoj Žižek but…” I wanted Lerner to talk about how he wrote the Marfa poem and then broke it into pieces and folded them into 10:04. It’s so prosy, so Copper Canyon-y, reminiscent of the more conversational Dickman twin.

Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner

Lerner’s gifts for surprising but apt descriptions are all over the book: watching The Passion of Joan of Arc is like “Skyping with Falconetti,” a subway platform embrace is “the sexiest kiss in the history of independent film.” You can feel his eyebrows waggle at meta-metaphor: “There were a few flakes of snow in the high beams, melting against the windshield, but I saw them as moths, or saw them first as one and then the other, as if it were winter and then midsummer in my poem.”

I took diligent notes throughout the proceedings, because I was on assignment for Fiction Advocate, whose founder I was to meet at the reading. I recognized on the hipster bleachers another man called Brian but he was not the Brian I wanted, the Fiction Advocate Brian, who texted to say he’d seen the back of my head. I wanted to rise and greet Fiction Advocate Brian without drawing the attention of the other Brian. I kept checking my phone without noting the time.

I also expected another friend to attend but I’d learn later that she went first to the wrong Green Apple Books, the original in the Inner Richmond, and had to travel into the future to get to the newer version. I looked back repeatedly, expecting to see her or Fiction Advocate Brian because they’re both tallish humans. When we spoke about the reading she told me I ought not put into my review too many mean-spirited jokes about hipsters and I’m trying to do that.

It’s perfect that my notes filled the table of contents page of a New Yorker because that was the most notepad-like thing available and, of course, the narrator in 10:04 gets his “strong six figure” advance on the strength of the story that appeared in the New Yorker, a story in the third person about Ben Lerner that Ben Lerner includes as the second part of 10:04 before switching back to the first person for the rest of the book. On the almost-covered page my friend Chris wrote to me, “Why do I feel so uncomfortable?” and I replied with an arrow indicating the 40ish woman in a short dress on the step to our immediate right who had been threatening to Sharon Stone us with each uncrossing of her legs.

I wish Lerner had read at greater length—he was really just allowed a paragraph here and there—so I could get more caught up in his sentences that resemble enjambed lines of poetry. Luxford had the novelist read from what you know, even the first time through, is the money paragraph, the one you know will go back to, including the most beautifully phrased version of Lerner’s central thesis, which he spoke into a mike with a slight echo: “If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred…”

That passage concludes later with the phrase “a mild lacrimal event” and my friend Chris finds the use of “a mild lacrimal event” overdone and dishonest and about this we violently disagree. “A mild lacrimal event” makes the whole thing; it makes me smile.

The audience asked overly practiced questions like, “I have a question of, I suppose, genre…” and referenced Tao Lin outside the context of child rape. Lerner answered with phrases about the elasticity of the novel and flirting with the edges of genre and was always careful to call the narrator of 10:04 “he” and not “I” and it seemed rather unnecessary to defend his choices, living as we do in the age of Knausgaard. Another friend of mine I didn’t find at the reading, who also contributes to Fiction Advocate, says we ought to shelve our books into two categories: prose and verse.

I sometimes grew paranoid that another literature lover would look over my shoulder and spot all the hateful notes I’d been taking so I flipped the table of contents page over and looked into an ad for Cartier’s Panthère collection. There is an image of a leopard with green eyes looking at a glass table on which there is his reflection and also a ring composed of diamonds in the shape of a leopard head. It has emerald eyes.

It was then, in that jeweled moment, that I reflected on my favorite page of 10:04, one of extreme tenderness: “I turned to Alex and watched the colors from the movie flicker on her sleeping body, noted the gold necklace she always wore against her collarbone. I tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and then let my hand trail down her face and neck and brush across her breast and stomach in one slow motion I halfheartedly attempted to convince myself was incidental. I was returning my hand to her hair when I saw her eyes were open.”

Does this passage remind me of a moment in my own life, slightly rearranged? Yes, it probably does. I think Lerner resembled all of us that crowded the room, a little too warm, still holding out hope that a book about the story of our lives might generate a strong six figure advance and that one day we too will give the world sentences they’ll eat up like unsulfured mangos, in irresponsible quantities.

– Kirk Michael is the White Tank Top.

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