Already renowned as a poet with three books of savvy, erudite free verse under his belt (books that had won him Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships and the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie), Ben Lerner's first small-press novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was a surprise breakout hit in 2011, winning the Believer's Book Award for that year (and making the shortlist for a number of other awards) and catapulting Lerner to a new level of notoriety, at least among a certain cult audience. In that first novel, a young American poet (clearly modelled on the author) is on a residency in Spain where, instead of writing the poem about the Spanish Civil War he is supposed to write, he mainly gets stoned and observes himself observing his surroundings. The protagonist is self-loathing, over-medicated, dishonest, awkward, and petty (at least in his own eyes), but his earnest musings about the value of art and its relation to experience and history are often brilliant. His intense self-scrutiny yields numerous flashes of insight as well as plenty of comic self-skewering of the inescapable douchiness of the pretentious American abroad. The Wall Street Journal said it was "both a hilarious sendup of the ironic posturing of would-be poets and a sincere defense of poetry's role in the modern world."
Now, for his second novel, Lerner has doubled down on metafictional self-consciousness and written a story about a poet struggling with unexpected success and forced by opportunity ( the "strong six figures" that his agent gets him as an advance) to write a second novel. The resulting hybrid of poetry, fiction, and memoir, not quite fiction or non-fiction, is "a masterpiece of conceptual art," sparkling with the same intelligence and wit that Lerner brought to Leaving the Atocha Station. Nor is the "conceptual art" epithet mere hyerbole: Lerner regularly engages in essayistic consideration of contemporary art as well as poetry, a tendency that reaches its height when his narrator goes on another writing residency, this time in Marfa, Texas, where he considers the modular, Minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd while on a debaucherous bender.
If that sounds pretentious, well, it is a bit, and even Lerner's sharp sense of the absurd can't save him from occasionally lapsing from send-up of pedantry into actual pedanry. 10:04 is nonetheless an exciting addition to the coterie of recent literature-of-ideas (Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti. Lars Iyer, and Montreal's own Jacob Wren all come to mind) that have straddled the border between fiction and non-fiction, memoir and novel to great effect. Particularly for those who like their lit with a foot in the art world, Lerner's latest is sure to be one of the year's most talked-about titles.