The title of Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, refers to the time at which lightning strikes a famous Robert Zemeckis clock tower, hurling Marty McFly back to 1985. But it’s also a reference to The Clock, a massive film montage by Christian Marclay that synchronizes 24 hours worth of timepiece-related film clips (including footage from Back to the Future) into a daylong whole. The novel’s title signals the deeply allusive nature of Lerner’s book—the way it’s a work, like The Clock, made from other works.
In his essay for this series, Lerner coins the term “Museum Guard Syndrome” to describe his own attitude towards intertextuality: He sees the novel as a space to display artistic influences—as well as arrange, repurpose, and even vandalize the art of other masters. More broadly, the piece provides a justification for an essential obsession of Lerner’s fiction: to dramatize, through narrative, the experience of encountering art itself.
10:04’s unnamed narrator is a hyper-intellectual Brooklynite, a rising literary star who hopes to earn six figures on his next advance. As he struggles with the idea of donating sperm to a best friend, he discovers he has a congenital heart defect linked to Marfan’s Syndrome. But to describe the plot of a Lerner novel is besides the point. 10:04 is a layered exploration of the forces that, like the DeLorean Time Machine, have the power to remake reality as we know it: storms that knock out city grids, secrets from the past that alter the present, technology that disrupts our sense of time and place. And literature, of course—how it begins as words we hold, and ends up holding us within it.
Ben Lerner: Museum guards have, on more than one occasion, turned out to be vandals. A night guard at the Louvre scratched X-shapes into nine paintings with his keys in 1962; more recently, in 2008, a guard in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh slashed a piece from Vija Celmin’s Night Sky series with a key. ("I didn't like the painting," the guard told police. “I’m sorry”; "He's not someone who has anything against the art world," his lawyer would explain).