Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

On Birth, Death, Time and New York -- and How to Fake Sincerity

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

On Birth, Death, Time and New York -- and How to Fake Sincerity

Article excerpt

Byline: RICHARD GODWIN

10:04 by Ben Lerner (Granta, PS14.99) BEN LERNER'S second novel, 10:04, begins with a novelist walking with his agent along the High Line in New York after an octopus-based dinner. They're discussing what he's going to write for his second novel, after the unexpected success of his debut.

Lerner's debut, Leaving the Atocha Station, was an unexpected success. He lives in New York. He's 35. He's clever. He's probably eaten octopus in similar circumstances to those described. The agent tells him that his second novel should earn him a "strong six-figure" advance -- all he has to do is expand on a short story of his that was in The New Yorker.

As for how he'll go about expanding on it: "I'll project myself into several futures simultaneously," he decides retrospectively. "I'll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid."

And that's pretty much what Lerner goes on to do in his second novel. He moves from this selfconsciously self-conscious opening to something approaching sincerity via a series of surprising temporal shifts (the title alludes to Back to the Future). Ever since the late David Foster Wallace wrote his famous essay on Television and US Fiction, American male writers have seemed troubled by this problem of sincerity -- a sincere recognition that irony will only get you so far when coupled with an inability to be sincere, ironically. With Lerner there's also something more subtle going on too -- a questioning of the very nature of sincerity.

The narrative appears arbitrary but, actually, dramatic things do happen. The narrator, impish and downbeat, learns that he has a rare problem with his heart and becomes "burdened with the awareness that there was a statistically significant chance the largest artery in my body would rupture at any moment". …

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