Ben Lerner’s 10:04, characterization in post-modern fiction

Cover of 10:04 by Ben Lerner

By Joe Krzyzewski

Ben Lerner is part of a new school of post-modern writers sometimes dubbed “alt-lit.” Like his celebrated contemporaries such as Tao Lin, Lerner’s work tends to question traditional notions of fiction and often employs meta techniques. While these traits are nothing new in the realm of what you might call “heady” fiction, what separates Lerner from the last batch of post-modernists (The Wallaces and Delillos of the world) is a deliberate slimness to his volumes. Unlike the meta-maximalists of the ‘90s and early aughts who famously tried to replicate real experience with their thousand page novels and excessive footnotes, were it not for the back-bin philosophical references, Lerner’s latest 10:04 could be eighth-grade summer reading material. Unlike the often-quoted yet rarely-finished game changers such as Underworld or Infinite Jest, Lerner’s latest seems to have accepted that reality is not a quantifiable experience but rather a patchwork of biases and distortions quite a lot like fiction itself. The fact that Lerner (like Mr. Lin) was originally published as a poet might contribute to these minimalist tendencies as well.

10:04 plays on a fairly common trope of metafiction where the narrator is a writer who resembles the author himself and may be working on something that resembles the actual novel. What separates 10:04 from the nouveau-pack is its focus on perceptions and process. The main set piece of the book is a short story written by the novel’s main character. Through this device, we see how life is portrayed and distorted into fiction. Lerner goes on to draw a parallel between memory itself and the writing process. Through various allusions including one particularly memorable one about a girl who the narrator thinks is a friend’s daughter, he shows us that our lives are often merely fictions we create for various reasons.

What really interested me was Lerner’s process in crafting 10:04. I assumed that the most logical way to go about it would be to write the segments involving the primary character first and then write the interior short story “through” the consciousness of this character. When I asked Lerner about this during his Q and A at Purchase College his answer surprised me. Lerner said that he had initially written the short story as a self-contained piece and had built the rest of the narrative around it. In other words, Lerner had built a character and a consciousness based on the type of work that that character might create. While this initially seemed somewhat backwards to me, after some thought I began to realize what Lerner was implying: The most telling trait of a character is the type of fictions he creates. This not only means the actual writing said character might produce, but also what he chooses to remember and considers important about his own life. While the format of 10:04 is a neat meta-trick it is also a unique and effective way to go about creating character. This notion of considering what a character might create in terms of art and his own memory is quite unique and very inspiring.

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