The International Journal of the Book offers an annual award for newly published research or thinking that has been recognized to be outstanding by members of the Books, Publishing & Libraries Research Network.
The novel as a technology is changing in the age of digital media. This article explores how Ben Lerner in 10:04 (2014) problematises the twenty-first-century novel as a self-reflective technology that is highly aware of, and reactive to, the digital media environment it inhabits. This move is not Lerner’s alone, but it is representative of much avant-garde fiction of the 2010s, fiction for which the tag “postmodern” is anachronistic and unmeaning. Authors like Ali Smith, Tom McCarthy, Teju Cole, Alejandro Zambra, and Enrique Vila-Matas have, in recent works, interrogated the novel as the technology it is and do so in a digital media light, sometimes explicitly and narratively, sometimes formally and stylistically. In the article at hand, I wish to serve an example of such a “new novel” with Lerner’s 10:04 as my case in point. I explore how 10:04 makes sense of the past, present, and future through media and how this breathes new life into the novel form and leads it in an avant-garde direction, where the multimodal and narrative texture of the novel is more important than plot, as the former is more readily able to communicate the essence and texture of contemporary life.
If we care about novels, we necessarily care about how and why they change. The avid reader can therefore not altogether turn her gaze away from digital media. Digitality continues to transform the way we communicate, how we work, run elections, do business, do journalism. The novel is not exempt from such pivotal changes in society. My article explores just that, through Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a novel demonstrating the presence and texture of digital media in everyday life, without being a novel about digital media. And that's just the point.
10:04 is a catalogue of reflections on existing in time, writing in time, and writing about time, often via smartphones, Google Maps, computers. Lerner’s characters live with and in media. As his readers do. In using recomposition devices, the novel reveals itself as a medium, while self-reflexively questioning the very concept of storytelling. Is this not the role of the novel – to capture the weave of life, and to be self-conscious about this grand endeavour, rather than promulgate?
Ben's eyes flicker between the art installation The Clock and the digital clock on his phone. He realises how to write his story: as mixed media, as a blend of fictions and non-fictions, poetry, reflections, novels within novels, effectively gathering human bodies, electricity, and art under a single tab of things that are able to influence each other. Lerner's novel is a navigation of potentials, and thus, as a medium, manages to do something new. Something, dare I say it, avant-garde.
I came away from writing this article with something of an idea of the avant-garde in the age of digital media. Ben Lerner might be avant-garde, yet he is not exceedingly experimental. While innovations take place, they do not resist smooth consumption. When comparing with other coeval novels that perform formal innovation, such as Ali Smith’s How to be Both, it seemed clear to me that there is no speaking about avant-garde literature without speaking about art (which both authors do. See my article on Smith and the frescoes of Francesco del Cossa, http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2017/01/26/arriving-in-ferrara/, Smith on Mona Hatoum, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/never-take-anything-what-it-appears-be-ali-smith-on-mona-hatoum, and Lerner on the Whitney, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/01/11/the-custodians-onward-and-upward-with-the-arts-ben-lerner).
"Just as Marcel Duchamp asked if a urinal could be art, the readymade novel asks what literature can be, and what it should be in the future," Shaj Mathews writes. Similar to Duchamp, Lerner's point is the possibility, the chance of xyz, the short-circuiting of potentials, exemplified by Alena’s gallery of “totalled” art – artworks damaged by e.g. fire, water or impact and assessed valueless by insurance companies. That was Duchamp's question: can a bicycle wheel mounted on a wooden stool be a work of art, culturally, capitally?
Following the trajectory laid out in my article, I will explore the relationship between the experimental novel and the visual arts in my doctorate, focusing on the British novelists J.G. Ballard, Alan Burns and Ann Quin. As for Lerner and Smith, galleries posed a site of artistic innovativeness that these Sixties authors readily employed as a key model for novelistic experimentation.
—Denise Rose Hansen
Voytek Bialkowski, The International Journal of the Book, Volume 8, Issue 2, pp.101–106
Adam Riggio, The International Journal of the Book, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp.9–16
John W. Warren, The International Journal of the Book, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp.83–94