Times Squared

Reviewed by Tina Trigg

In Little White Lies and 10:04, Katie Dale and Ben Lerner have crafted narratives of the moment for different generations, exploring temporality, tipping points, and translucent identities. Aimed at a young adult audience, Little White Lies spins a tangled web of deceit through the tropes of freshman university experience and a love triangle, complete with the emotionally wrought, impulsive idealism of youth. Lucinda Willoughby-White attempts to reconstruct herself to escape her family’s high-profile criminal case, but finds herself in love with a presumed killer, fleeing for her life, and desperate to make the right decision.

Dale delivers on the level of genre while also engaging in social critique. The plot is surprisingly complex, combining predictable coincidence with a Gordian knot of possible betrayals, illusions, and falsehoods. A vigilante quest becomes an exposé of ugly family secrets: broken marriage, alcoholic rage, racism, murder, and scapegoating. Alongside the recognizable foibles of university life—parties, pranks, and peer pressure—Dale examines age-appropriate issues of love (distinct from sexual intimacy), belonging, and career-paths, complicating them with sobering realities. Social media deception and technology-hacking rapidly escalate from pranks to life-threatening exposure; legal and judicial systems face suspicion and (some) validated allegations; and traditional media is lauded for revelation of truth while also condemned for sensationalistic distortion.

Little White Lies is a thriller verging on contemporary fairy tale. Following harrowing escapes, false identities collapse and Lucinda achieves her “happily ever after” with the handsome exonerated Leo—at a cost. Ultimately, Dale affirms the significance of family alongside the redemptive powers of love, truth, and justice made possible through difficult individual decisions in a moment of time.

Akin to the GPS-laden wristwatches of Dale’s characters, the “retro” digital timestamp of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 pinpoints the urgency of time for a thirty-something generation. Alluding to the 1985 film Back to the Future, the title collapses the author/protagonist’s lived experience with the contingencies of narrative time. While not time travel per se, 10:04 enacts a subtle mutation of life as constantly forming in response to material conditions and personal actions—from reproductive choices to lexical ones. The world is described as multivalent, ever leaning towards “the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different.” Dizzyingly shifting among minutes, lifespans, and even epochs, the novel recounts the narrative of Ben, a poet-novelist, living in contemporary Brooklyn over the span of about two years.

Structured into five discrete sections, the novel ranges widely in subject and form yet is oddly circumscribed. Meta-fictively tracing Ben’s journey to write his second novel, Lerner muses about mortality (through biological clocks, cataclysmic storms, and life-threatening diagnoses) and the paradoxes of contemporary life. Signalled by the insistent recurrence of the term “propiocentric,” an octopus motif functions as a metaphor for self-consciously navigating environments for which one is ill-equipped, whether animal or human. Ben is at the mercy of the elements (natural and constructed) as well as of volatile social norms (relational, artistic, medical, ideological, among others). The self-doubting protagonist (speaking variably as “I,” “he,” or “the author”) luxuriates in art galleries and gourmet dinners while also vacillating between underprivileged students and Occupy Wall street sympathies. Collapsing reality and art, the novel consistently elides boundaries through pastiche. Traditional narrative is blended with innumerable other modes, including still frames from films, poems in fragment and entirety, photographs and drawings, literary criticism, a child’s brontosaurus book-project, Lerner’s published New Yorker story, and fabricated email messages. Far from attempting reconciliation either in character or structure, 10:04 clusters and overlaps, revelling in interplay and contradiction, thereby creating an unsettling picture of contemporary urban life.

Lerner claims in a recent interview that being a poet makes him “more interested in pattern than plot” and places his current interest “in a novel at a moment where the fictions we’ve been telling ourselves, personally, politically, whatever, feel fragile.” Patterning, instability, and reconstruction dominate 10:04 in its representation of the interdependence of past, present, and future, but the self-conscious hermeneutic creates a mildly oppressive mood. Combined with an indulgent tone and dense diction, the novel’s tenor may be off-putting to some readers. Nonetheless, dubbing it “a social experiment,” Lerner indeed presents a worthy contemplation. Firmly situated in contemporary New York, 10:04 offers challenging re-visions of art (notably through the Institute for Totaled Art), relationships and reproductive options, time, and the layers of selves through which one lives—without a road map or known expiry date and “on the very edge of fiction.”

This review “Times Squared” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 139-40.

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