10:04 is Ben Lerner’s second novel, which is named after that important scene in Back to The Future. The book looks at the idea of time travel but it is only insofar as a lot of semi-autobiographical stories are told in a non-linear and circular way. In sum, 10:04 is the equivalent of peering through the looking glass at its author, Ben Lerner’s life.

This novel is a strange and arty one. It is a first-person narrative that is delivered by a writer who is also named Ben. The lead character is a self-deprecating, wistful and melancholy guy who tends to be quite thoughtful and spends lots of time ruminating on things. This interior dialogue is well-written as Lerner is adept at wordplay and he writes artistic sentences. But at times things are too intellectual and complex for regular readers to really get into.

The story begins with the author Ben having just received a large advance to write a book. This was purely off the back of a successful short story (this is published here in a single chapter and it is one of Lerner’s that first appeared in The New Yorker). Ben decides to use part of his advance to help his childless friend conceive through in-vitro fertilisation. Ben is also going to act as the sperm donor and he grapples with the idea of impending fatherhood. This is generally dealt with through lots of angst, but this may in part be due to the fact that he has also recently been diagnosed with a life-threatening condition.

There are moments where Lerner is quietly funny. But 10:04’s biggest downfall is that the plot is rather weak and the supporting characters are often not explored in much detail. This means that individuals are often introduced, swiftly utilised and then not heard of again, which can make it difficult to relate to or to fully immerse yourself in the proceedings.10:04 also includes a story that Lerner wrote with a young boy about dinosaurs. This is an example of how too many musings and unrelated items are thrown together to make an incoherent, uneven novel. It feels like Lerner wanted to string together as many personal events as possible, regardless of whether they appeared to have anything in common (besides himself).

Ben Lerner is a talented, young writer and poet who is clever and thoughtful but 10:04 is ultimately one very difficult read. While it is interesting to hear him draw upon his personal experiences and have a romp through New York City, the stream-of-conscious style prose often feels too underdeveloped. But despite some issues with this novel, Lerner is an author to keep an eye out for because his writing will probably be like the kind of wine that improves with age.


Originally published on 18 December 2014 at the following website:

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