Book Review – 10:04 by Ben Lerner

After a full year of the blog not having any book reviews on it, I fully planned to have a new review up on the site sometime in January or February of this year. And this post is proof of making good on that promise. This just wasn’t the book I had planned on reviewing. I’ll hope to get to that book in the not to distant future, however I’ve decided to preempt that review with one about Ben Lerner’s book “10:04” for two reasons.

  1. I have significantly more to say about “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”1The book linked in the paragraph above. than I do about “10:04”. This is partly because I wholeheartedly loved “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing”, partly because I feel like the messages in that book are much more poignant in today’s society than the average book, and partly because I’m a huge fan of Hank Green. It’s also partly because I have conflicting feelings about “10:04”, which I’ll get into below.
  2. “10:04” is the first book that I’ve read in years that made me actively ask ‘what in the fuck did I just read?’ and not have it be completely in a bad way2I’ve had quite a few of the ‘what in the fuck did I just read?’ in a bad way books over the past few years. This list includes, but is not limited to, “The Red Inn” by Honore de Balzac, “Lucky Us” by Amy Bloom, and “The Iliad” by Homer..

The premise of “10:04” — an author writing about the process of writing a book — is simple enough. Much like Hollywood fetishizes over movies about Hollywood, authors love reading books about other writers and their writing processes, be they fictional or otherwise. That said, “10:04” is not so much about the author’s journey to write a single book as much as it is a journey to write four3At least four. You could make the argument it’s more than that with the different ideas he details, but there’s four solid books discussed. different stories over the course of the book. It is a beautifully relatable tale in that regard. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many story ideas that I’ve had that I’ve started, only to scrap them later for a better idea, or when I tired of writing the initial story. Lerner does a masterful job of grasping with this concept in “10:04”, as well as the many reasons why authors have mental hurdles when it comes to writing works that are intended for future publication.

The various stories detailed with in the book, however, also become its downfall to a certain extent. Though the main storyline flows linearly and coherently, when bits and pieces of the stories that the author is writing are worked into the book, it makes for a confusing read. This was even more noticeable in the audiobook version of “10:04”, where the reader of the story did not clearly delineate when the narrator was switching between telling his own story and telling a story he had written (though there was a notable exception later in the book that was done flawlessly). Instead of having a flowing, coherent read, those who choose to listen to the audiobook may experience minutes at a time where they’re confused whether or not they’re reading the main story itself or a story within a story. From what I’ve seen in a quick skim through the physical book, this is better laid out in the book itself, hence why it is a criticism on my part, though not a chief one.

“10:04” is very much a metafictional look into writing a book from the view of an author within a book. I love this style of writing, particularly when it’s done well. There are several nods to the fact that the author/narrator of this book knows that you, the reader, are consuming his current book. With that said, it’s not intrusive enough to be a distraction from the main story itself. The book has a few interesting subplots, particularly the relationship between the author and his best friend, Alex, in their quest to conceive a child through IVF4There’s a moment in this particular subplot that’s incredibly cringey. It works because the main character is portrayed as flawed and somewhat impulsive, but at the same time doesn’t work because of how much the main character seems to focus on morality in the book. Even after finishing the entire book and understanding how that scene fits into the larger context of the novel, I still don’t understand the need for its inclusion. It just adds an unnecessary reason to hate the main character to the story.. The overarching goal of the author finishing his story — or what that story would eventually become by the end of the book — is molded and changed by the various subplots within the story, which helps them flow quite naturally.

My biggest complaint about “10:04” is how frequently the main character of the story would talk smart just to sound smart. Since the main character is both an author and a professor, it goes without saying that this individual would have an extensive vocabulary and would deploy it regularly, both as the narrator of a metafictional piece and in his day-to-day interactions with other people in the book. With that said, there were several times throughout the book I was left wondering whether the main character was meant to be portrayed as a pompous intellectual or not. I don’t think this was the intent when the character was written, as evidenced by the main character’s interactions with children in the book, as well as most of his time with Alex. But there were enough times where I felt like the narrator was trying to impress someone with his verbosity that it was distracting — arguably the most distracting part of the book as a whole.

With that all said, there is something that “10:04” does better than most any book I’ve read5Definitely in recent memory, possibly ever.. The way that Lerner planted small pieces of the story at the beginning of the book and then integrated them throughout the story as it moved along was superb. From the repetition of the poem “High Flight” to discussion on the ethics (and weirdness) of eating baby octopuses at fancy restaurants6As well as several other running items., the whole book felt like it tied together beautifully because of how much every little thing discussed mattered. Some authors7Hello! will go on long tangents aside as a method to world building or moving a subplot along. Lerner did this, but he took it a step further by using these tangents to create an environment for the story where you, as the reader, could latch on to these small details spread throughout the book. They’d draw you back into whatever was going on in the story, no matter how lost you were.

Initially after ending “10:04”, I had no idea what to think of the book. I texted Megan of the book review site Soul Meets Books and said the following:

Today in books I have no idea what to think of: “10:04” by Ben Lerner. It’s the first book I’ve read in a while that made me think ‘what in the fuck did I just read?’

After a bit of time for reflection, I think I know what in the fuck I just read. “10:04” does what it is intended to do in a great way — to provide a first person examination into the process of writing a book, along with all of the influences that go into it, all in a metafictional way. It is limited by intertwining stories within the story that make the story unnecessarily complex, as well as a narrator who inconsistently deploys complex vocabulary in such a way that can be a put off to some readers. With that said, I think I find myself more intrigued by “10:04” after reading the book than I was during my read of the book. That’s not a small feat to achieve when writing a book about the process of writing a book. “10:04” has made me think about the process to writing a book — as well as the various intricate details involved that make a book truly exceptional — more than the vast majority of books I’ve read. I don’t know that I’d recommend “10:04” to everyone. If you’re not engaged with the main point of the story, it can be hard to get invested in the characters aside from the narrator. But if you’re a writer in any capacity, I do think “10:04” is worth your time.