10:04 by Ben Lerner

This post was developed and authored by Catherine Engh, Ph.D.

Core text

Lerner, Ben 10:04 (New York: Farrar Strous and Giroux, 2014).


In this autofictional novel set in New York City, the narrator tells the story of how the book came to be. We learn that the novel was financed based on the promise of a short story that the narrator “Ben” published in The New Yorker, and we see the conception of the project change as the narrator works his way from “fraudulence to sincerity in the sinking city.” By integrating the financing of the novel into the narrative itself, Lerner invites readers of 10:04 to ask whether and how a work of writing enabled by the logic of speculation can make a “bad model of collectivity” a basis for imagining a more promising one.

The novel narrates two climate events loosely based on Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. In the first, the narrator is “disappointed” when he hears on the radio that the storm was less destructive than predicted. The storm’s failure to arrive calls attention to the role of speculation in the representation of climate futures, and to the need to find a surer medium than the local weather report for figuring climate crisis as a transpersonal phenomena. In the end, 10:04 offers a tentative alternative to speculative representations of climate futures as well as to speculative forms of value as Ben turns the fiction on literary fraud that he was financed to write into a realist depiction of New York City in the wake of Sandy. The book ends in a lyric address in which the author Ben (not the persona of the narrator) rewrites Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to affirm that vulnerability to extreme weather makes him, the city that he lives in, and the readers of the future what they are.

Below, we recommend readings on urban poetics, realism and its resistance of speculation, infrastructure, and non-green ecologies to teach alongside 10:04.

Teaching Resources

  • Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Here, Whitman’s speaker describes a diversity of ordinary sights and sounds that can be perceived by anyone crossing the ferry between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The speaker describes the scalloped shaped waves, the seagulls floating with motionless wings, the hills of Brooklyn, the faces of strangers, the steamers in motion, and the fires of the foundry chimneys. He proposes that the appearances that he takes in while on the ferry forge a connection between him and his future readers. This poem is a precedent for Lerner’s use of poetic address to constitute a “transpersonal” subjectivity. Whitman’s poem would teach very nicely alongside Lerner’s novel as part of a conversation about their interest in the relation of the individual to the larger ecological and technological processes that make urban living possible.
  • Jeremy Colangelo, “From the Progress of ‘Faustus and Helen’: Crane Whitman and the Metropolitan Progress Poem.” This article discusses the “Metropolitan Progress Poem” in American literature. The genre is exemplified in two poems about the modern city that Lerner alludes to in his novel–Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge.” I would recommend pairing the section in which Colangelo discusses Whitman alongside Crane (pgs 9-15). This article will be especially useful for those who teach Whitman or Crane alongside Lerner, and want to discuss with students the precedents for Lerner’s thinking about the transpersonal community that poetic address forges. We would argue, however, that 10:04 troubles the progress poem’s celebration of urban progress by calling attention to ways in which climate change can cause infrastructural failure.
  • Jonathan Culler, Lyric Address,” “Lyric and Society.” These sections of Theory of the Lyric could be used to introduce students to differences between the lyric poem and fiction (a genre which they tend to be more familiar with). In “Lyric Address,” Culler argues against a view of the lyric speaker as a fictional “persona” or “character” and urges us to consider instead the immediate claim that the lyric speaker makes on our way of thinking and feeling. The difference between a fictional character and a poetic speaker is crucial for Lerner, who abandons his fictional persona in an effort to think “trans-personally” at the end of 10:04. “Lyric and society” includes a discussion of instances in which the structure of feeling urged by the lyric address overlays the hegemonic values of industrial, and/or capitalist society.
  • Arne De Boever, Financing the Novel: Ben Lerner’s 10:04.This essay on 10:04 addresses the financing of Lerner’s novel, and his fascination with the “aura” of art which has survived its own commodification. De Boever observes that a “destructive” approach to the neoliberal financialization of art is represented in the character of Ben’s girlfriend Alena, who establishes an Institute for Totaled Art, where art that has been taken off the market can be seen and discussed. This is the only criticism on 10:04 I’ve been able to find that addresses Lerner’s thinking about gender. De Boever argues that Ben’s hope for tart and its future is shadowed within the novel by Alena’s more radical, “no-future” approach to the current state of things.
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Lowell Duckert, “Introduction: Ecology’s Rainbow” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Cohen and Duckert stage a critique of “green ecocriticism” on the basis that it too often signifies a return to an “unspoiled world,” a pastoral eden that persists apart from society. This Introduction might be used to introduce students to the idea that environmental concern is not necessarily synonymous with the preservation of wilderness ecologies and national parks. Instead, environmental concern can be a response to disturbances of seasonality, weather, and of the organizations of “fuel and labor” that make ordinary things like coffee beans, seafood, and electricity available to us.
  • De Bruyn, B. Realism 4°. Objects, weather and infrastructure in Ben Lerner’s 10:04. De Bruyn takes 10:04 as a point of departure to make a case for the place of realism in the cannon of contemporary climate change fiction. Though Lerner focuses on the ordinary, that focus is not simply individualistic or anthropocentric, but opens out onto an awareness of inhuman scales of space and time, and infrastructural networks of persons and things. He argues that, because Lerner’s first book was funded by the Fulbright foundation, his style of realism is concerned with the memorialization of disaster in an age of climate change. De Bruyn argues that Lerner’s realism is concerned with the memorialization of disaster. Lerner finds in the Donald Judd boxes that he views in Marfa Texas a form of planetary memory, or a memorial that is addressed not only to humans but to a posthuman world.

Discussion Questions

  1. In 10:04, extreme weather calls attention to the fragility of large scale processes that city dwellers usually cannot see but upon which they depend. How does Ben grasp the effect of extreme weather on the global flow of goods and services into and out of the city? What ordinary activities come to seem strange, even haunting, in light of a potential or actual infrastructural breakdown?
  2. Ben is consistently moved by works of art like “The Picture of Sasha Grey,” the pieces in the “Institute for Totaled Art,” the poem “High Flight,” and the Donald Judd boxes which seem to have survived disaster. What are the disasters to which these objects have been exposed and why might the signs of an object’s exposure to disaster heighten our appreciation of it? Can we describe 10:04 itself as a work of art that has survived disaster?
  3. The narrator and Roberto co-author a book about how a mistake in the identification of the brontosaurus was corrected. Are we to understand the book’s focus on scientific progress as a kind of response to Roberto’s fears about the dystopian effects of climate change? What are the similarities and differences between Roberto’s experience of extreme weather and the narrator’s memory of the Challenger disaster? What does the narrator’s work with Roberto tell us about the challenges and rewards of sustaining relationships across lines of cultural, linguistic, and generational difference?

Essay Prompts

  1. Lerner is interested in how poetic language allows “the similitudes of the past, and those of the future” to correspond. The narrator repeats phrases such as “majesty and murderous stupidity,” “beautiful beyond all change,” “a little shower of embers,” “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” “fingernails painted with stars,” and “I am with you / and I know how it is” as leitmotifs. Choose one or two of these phrases, and trace its significance within the novel. Explain the contexts in which the phrase becomes meaningful, and describe the communities or persons with which the phrase is associated. How does poetic language help Lerner and his reader to imagine a future in which community is founded on some other basis than “murderous stupidity”?
  2. Ben’s study of Walt Whitman informs his decision to replace the book he proposed on literary fraudulence with “the book you are reading now, a work that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction.” Both in Marfa and at the end of 10:04, Ben adapts Whitman’s sentiments to a different time and place. Write a paper that traces the significance of Whitman’s writing, in Specimen Days and/or in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, for Lerner’s project. You might ask: how does Ben problematize the nationalism built into Whitman’s politics of sympathy in Specimen Days? How, alternatively, does Ben adapt Whitman’s methods for rendering urban community in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry to configure the present of New York in the aftermath of the second Hurricane?