Every now and then a book comes along that changes how you think about yourself, the world, even books themselves. For writer Adam Colman, that book was Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a slim 2014 novel starring a protagonist that shares the author’s first and last names. Truly a novel about ideas, 10:04 follows “Ben Lerner” as he receives a potentially devastating medical diagnosis, is asked by his best friend to conceive a child together, experiences New York City’s increasingly dangerous superstorms, and explores opportunities for further self discovery.
That’s part of the story anyway. The book is actually about so much more, including, argues Colman, dealing with (and learning from) failure. In his “book about a book,” New Uses for Failure: Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Colman examines the book’s foray into what he calls “essayistic fiction,” as well as its various meditations on failure. I spoke to Colman (who I know from graduate school) about what he means by “failure” and “essayistic fiction,” and how 10:04 serves as an unlikely “how-to” book.
What draws you to Ben Lerner’s work?
I’m a writer interested in how literature gives us access to possible worlds; Lerner’s protagonists are similar. I’ll admit that a lot of people tell me they’re annoyed by writers writing about themselves, and I worry that writers writing about writers writing about people similar to the writers writing about writers might even sound doubly/triply/quintuply annoying.
But 10:04 doesn’t give much attention to narcissistic solipsism. It’s an exploratory, essayistic narrative of trials and failures of one particular self, leading its protagonist and its reader into all kinds of funny, sad, or surprising topics and problems. I know that Lerner’s fiction can sound self-centered in a limiting way, but when you’re reading 10:04, it’s hard not to see worlds open up even when things seem to be closing down.
You open your book with some musings on failure. What do you mean by failure?
By “failure,” I mean everything we do, think, or say. We can’t execute anything perfectly, or encompass some truth about the world in our thoughts with total success. But this doesn’t have to be only a bad thing; my book considers how literature can help us use failures to expand our understanding of the world’s potential.
How do your ideas about failure relate to Ben Lerner’s 10:04?
10:04‘s main character thinks a lot about how his world is shaped by failures and disasters—problems ranging in scale from social awkwardness to aesthetic disappointment to climate change. The protagonist suggests that some human failures might lead to something better. He muses, for example, that “bad forms of collectivity” might “serve as figures of its real possibility.” Generally, 10:04 narrates his stumbling attempts to make something good out of failure, all conveyed by means of essayistic fiction.
What do you mean by essayistic fiction, and why is the concept important for understanding Lerner’s book?
I really hope this book encourages more work in or about essayistic fiction, which I describe as the literary mode for exploring our world—in the manner of an essay—but via the imaginative, inventive attention to the possibilities that fiction offers. Some writers whose work exemplifies the genre include Lynne Tillman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Teju Cole, and Sheila Heti. Essayistic fiction exists in a self-aware way within the gulf between imaginative thought about our world and the actual world. Most of our failures also make their home in this same gulf. Things go wrong often because our thoughts don’t map cleanly onto the rest of the world. So I’m arguing that essayistic fiction is really well suited for confronting failure.
10:04 is fundamentally essayistic fiction: it’s clearly labeled as fiction, but it’s narrated from the perspective of a character named (like its very actual author) Ben Lerner, and this character thinks critically about the world’s problems. I’ve chosen to focus on 10:04 in order to understand essayistic fiction not just because it’s so evidently essayistic, but also because it deals with failure emphatically and powerfully. It has this buzz to it, the kind you get while continually bumbling through actuality and imagined possibility. Reading 10:04 gives you that charged and often comic experience of awkwardly making your way through failures and, encouragingly, toward novel possibilities intimated by those failures.
Your book is, at base, a book about a book. But you also describe it as a “how-to” book. What are you aiming to instruct people to do?
I’d like people to confront failures more honestly and inventively, but I realize that I can’t actually make this happen, in part because I don’t really know the rules for doing so. I’ve therefore written New Uses for Failure as a failed or incomplete how-to book, a craft book that attempts to make literary prescriptions while continually doubting its own enterprise. It’s a hopeful book rather than a certain book. The hope is that the reader gets ideas for exploring things imaginatively—for dreaming essayistically, or for making fiction critically.
One of the most memorable aspects of 10:04 is Ben Lerner’s (the character) encounter with an art-video installation called The Clock. I’ve read several critical analyses of what this installation represents and how it functions in the narrative of 10:04. Your analysis feels fresh. Can you discuss here some of your thoughts on The Clock?
The Clock by Christian Marclay is a supercut of scenes from various films that include clocks, all of which together traces minute-by-minute a full, twenty-four-hour day. It invites all manner of failures on the part of its viewers: either you don’t watch the whole twenty-four-hour thing, or you imagine connections between scenes that are in no way there, or you miss other connections, or you grow distracted. In 10:04, Lerner gets distracted and checks the time on his phone, even when the time is always presented by The Clock. That failure on his part prompts thoughts about other possible time frames, about the alternate realities one might access via art, and he becomes motivated to pursue fictional invention. In that scene The Clock prompts a funny interaction between essayistic art criticism and the imaginative considerations that lead to the realm of fiction.
What’s next for you?
Pretty soon you’ll be able to hear some of my experiments with fiction and improvisational story-making on episodes of McSweeney’s and KCRW’s Organist podcast. I also have a book coming out in 2019 called Drugs and the Addiction Aesthetic in Nineteenth-Century Literature, in which I’m still considering how literary invention comes from recognizing the possibilities inhering in actual experience. But specifically, I’m describing how writers patterned literary forms after the insistent patterns of addictive craving for possibility.
In all these projects, I’m trying to figure out how to use literature for really intense exploration of possibilities.
New Uses for Failure: Ben Lerner’s 10:04
By Adam Colman
Published November 20, 2018
Adam Colman has written for The Believer, KCRW and McSweeney’s Organist podcast, The Nervous Breakdown, and more. His book on the origins of the addiction aesthetic is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.