Time is a very strange aspect of life. Because time is a manmade phenomenon created as a measurement system, the way it dictates our lives seems unrealistic. Most people view time as a constant force in life, a mechanism for humanity to create plans and measure how much of our lives we devote to work, play, and relationships. The way in which Ben Lerner writes time in 10:04 turns this conventional notion of time on its head, shifting it into a non-linear entity that forms around each individual and becomes much more nebulous in its understanding of past, present, and future.
The narrator of 10:04 references the film Back to the Future regularly, implying a strong connection between the two. Back to the Future quickly brings up the idea of being stuck in time. Not only is the clock on the clock tower stuck at 10:04, but Marty becomes stuck in the past when the time-traveling car runs out of fuel. Similarly, the narrator seems to be stuck in time. He is always waiting for the future to come and change his life. He is waiting for his aorta to burst and for Alex to have his child. Because he is so concerned with his future, and so afraid of the possibility that his medical condition will kill him before he gets to his future, the narrator neglects his present. His life has stalled because he cannot live in the present. Alex even tries to reorient him when he wants to falsify the past in his upcoming novel. She tells him that she wants him to concern himself with dwelling in the present. The ironic piece in the story of Back to the Future, as it relates to 10:04, is that the lightning that stops the clock tower is also what powers the car to return Marty back to the future. It stops time, but also projects into the future. This duality can also be seen in the author’s book deal. Once he signs the contract and promises to write the novel he pitched, he loses all motivation to actually create that piece. He can write and work on other projects, but that particular work is just stalled. It is almost as if the expectation to create this novel, one that he had talked about often and had received such a great response, has stifled his creativity. He did not want to have to live up to the greatness of his concept. It is possible that he feared that the actual work would not elicit the same response as the original idea. So, with the imagined weight of these expectations, he was stopped in this liminal space where the concept of his work existed without its physical manifestation.
Expectations also play a large part in the understanding of time. There are two expected hurricanes in the novel, and the prospect of disaster changes the way the characters view their lives. The expectations people have for the future enable a certain present that is erased when the projected future does not occur. Before the first storm, it becomes apparent that this eminent doom is altering the narrator’s perspective. He views Alex differently, almost like when the hero in an action movie kisses the girl before he goes into battle just in case he never gets the chance again. This kind of fatalist perspective seems to shift the way the world appears. Dreams that before could wait, no longer can because the timeline has been shortened. It is all about the possibility. For some, the possibility of the end is a call to action or a reason to take risks. For the narrator of 10:04, this disaster is just shortening his already too-short timeline. His world is already at risk to end early as a result of his heart problem and it makes him remove himself from the possibility of raising a child with Alex. She continually tells him that his involvement will just be figured out as they go, almost as if she also doubts his chances of living a long life and does not want to get her hopes up. This is probably part of the reason Alex is more comfortable with IUI than the traditional way of making a baby – it creates another degree of separation between him and the baby. The less he is like a father, the less it will hurt if he cannot be one. But it is also important to note that this fear fades between the first and second storm. The first storm allows the narrator to be slightly closer to Alex than he regularly would be, but the fact that the storm never arrives somehow negates that closeness. By the second storm, Alex is pregnant with his child and their closeness feels much more permanent. They both become more willing to take the risk.
Even though neither of these storms directly affects the narrator, the idea of them changes him slightly. But the fact that the second storm hit part of the city and missed the narrator’s home kind of removes him from the experience. He is in the city and has to navigate through the destruction, but it is almost as though he experiences it through a screen. The most challenging part of this storm for him is that it is difficult for him to get a taxi to take him where he needs to go. Others have their homes ruined or livelihoods destroyed, which removes the narrator by a degree. Much like his explanation of the Challenger crash, he was in New York when the storm hit, but he did not experience it in the present-tense. He only experienced the mess it made. The second-hand experience seems to remove him from the collective present and place him in an individual present. He does not exist on the same plane as the storm and those affected by it.
These storms also serve as a parallel for the narrator’s heart condition. They are predictable disasters, but no amount of preparedness can stop their disastrous effects. All anyone is able to do is sit and wait for the future to become the present. It is also interesting to talk about the storms in relation to the author’s repeated use of the phrase “unseasonably warm” because the two seem to go hand in hand. Weather is analyzed extensively by meteorologists to attempt to predict what is to come and is one of the most trustworthy methods of seeing the future. Additionally, there are set expectations associated with seasons. Summer is supposed to be hot while winter is expected to be cold. So when the author repeats “unseasonably warm,” the audience can understand that the future is not acting within expectations. It gives these scenes an air of uncertainty, almost as if time does not feel right around the narrator. The weather of the present is not the weather that was predicted in the past. Similarly, the narrator expects with a kind of certain dread that the hole in his aorta will grow, and it does not. The unfulfillment of expectations leaves the world slightly off-kilter, following the path of a less-anticipated future.
This idea of multiple possible futures is incredibly pertinent to the theme of the novel. The narrator desperately wants his present to have a future, but he is very uncertain of what that future would look like. He likes having the freedom to change his future, so when a future becomes certain, he tends to avoid it, sticking himself in the present. When avoiding work on his novel, he writes in a poem that his back is to the future, indicating a degree of denial. He has focused so intently on the past that he has ignored the possibilities of the future. The narrator is afraid of what the future will bring, so he ruminates on the relative certainty of the past. This is what makes Noor’s story particularly interesting to him. In her story, the event of her mother telling her who her actual father is occurs in the present, but it entirely alters Noor’s past. It changed the way she viewed herself and her heritage, along with the entirety of her family dynamic. This singular moment in her present shed new light on her past and actually served to change who she was as a person. The past is not set in stone and when it is modified in the present, it creates this alternate present, where the previous present exists as a misinformed piece of the past. The two presents run parallel to each other for a short moment when new information is presented, creating two temporarily synchronized presents.
This idea of multiple presents is exemplified in another moment that is described as “unseasonably warm,” where some people are dressed for the expected cool weather while others are dressed for the warm weather. It reminds the author of a double-exposed photo where two contrasting times exist together in the present in the form of the photo. This brings up the idea of the present being overlapped with the past, like the knowledge and events of the past color the vision of the present. Everyone carries the weight of their experiences every day and it affects how they view the present. The past is never over; it exists simultaneously with the present. It exists in a strange space where the events cannot be actively changed, but the perception of them can be altered to an extreme degree.
Memory is an incredibly powerful part in our understanding of the past, but it is also a very unreliable resource. Memories are so easily altered as our present selves change; new eyes view memories differently and notice the subtleties that can now be understood. This idea is examined carefully when the narrator of “The Golden Vanity” tries to decide what kind of anesthesia he should choose for his wisdom teeth procedure. One kind of anesthesia removes the memory of the pain and the narrator cannot decide if that is the same as removing the pain. If the memory of the pain is not maintained, it should not have an effect upon the present. But this brings up the idea of repressed memories. Memories that are subconsciously remembered can have detrimental effects upon an individual’s psyche, indicating that active memory may not be the only method of recording the past. This line of thought only applies on an individual level though because posthumously, the only account of existence is through the recorded memory of others. The majority of the people who were alive centuries ago are of little consequence to those who are alive today, especially if they were not conquerors or queens. Still, they inhabited time and are of consequence to the time in which they resided. They are remembered in a general sense where it is agreed that they existed, but individual people are unknown, Strangely enough, the narrator sometimes feels as though the entirety of history is happening at once, with each person’s individual consciousness inhabiting time together. This is a moderately insightful feeling, because when the entirety of time is considered, the time humans have inhabited is miniscule. Human history has happened so quickly it might as well have happened all at once.
Even in the face of insurmountable time, Lerner makes an argument for the beauty of the present. The present flows into the past every moment, but the future falls into the present every time to replace it. It is always the present, but the present never lasts. Because the present is dually fleeting and eternal, it provides humanity with an unparalleled sense of ephemerality. This forms around the idea that the rare is precious and because the future is uncertain, what is happening now is beautiful just because it exists. But the experience of the past as viewed from the present is different from when it was experienced as present. What is beautiful one moment may be trifling the next, and that is part of the beauty of time. It is ever-changing as the individual’s perspective of it changes, creating something akin to moving art. Additionally, time, though a measurement, is experienced differently by each person. There is something magic about that.
There is also the interesting way in which time is recorded. With novels and films, the people of the present have a much better idea of how people experienced the past. This allows us to have not only an understanding of the past, but a secondhand experience of it. The entertainment of the past can serve as educational tools in the future. Even just between generations, this kind of information can change the way people understand their parents and their grandparents. The affect each person’s individual present has on his or her as a person is significant, and having the opportunity to understand what their present was like is incredible. Seeing the progression of time is also incredibly interesting in itself. The narrator even makes a comment about how seeing what was futuristic in the past makes that time seem even more ancient. The expectations the past had for their future, which is now the current present, reveal what that time thought would be important. The technological advances they predicted in the past generally consisted of flying cars and robot butlers or other things that would make life easier. Sometimes these predictions take darker turns and predict apocalypse-like events or supreme laziness, but rarely do these forms of media imagine the kind of things that the world needs to fix. The writers of these works do not mention cures to horrible diseases or a reliable environmentally-friendly energy source, which is probably what this present is most concerned about for the future. This creative choice betrays a great deal about the media concerns at the time and how people related to their country’s national identity.
The film The Clock in the novel also provides an interesting perspective on time. Because each minute in the film is synchronized with the minute in life, it yields a commentary on what times humanity partakes in particular activities. Somehow, even though the current time is constantly displayed on screen, the narrator finds himself checking his phone for the time. The medium used to express this message maintains an air of dissociation from the audience, wherein the time in the film still feels fictional. The time in the film and the time outside are like parallel lines that look the same and move the same, but are not actually the same. This is odd because time exists as a man-made concept that simply measures existence. The time in the film should have the same about of power over people as the time on a cell phone, but it does not. Humanity has molded time into this remarkably powerful entity that people revolve their lives around.
This idea of time as its own being is especially true in cities. Most cities are known for the daily hustle to work and a greater stream of productivity. Time dictates when the subway comes and when people have to be at work. Lives are lived by the clock; it becomes a constant companion. But cities are also places of missed connections and major disasters. So many people in such a small area create an infinite number of possible futures revolving around coincidence. The city is always changing and growing because it exists as its own entity. There is a greater chance of almost every kind of accident occurring, which makes the future far more uncertain than in less-populated areas.
The narrator often repeats the phrase “everything will be the same, but slightly different,” in regards to the future. One of the ways this can be interpreted is that the world will look the same, but the individual experiencing it will change. Things like skylines and mountains do not change lightly, but people change with every passing moment. Physical locations can hold the emotional memory of a moment, and may do so for many different people. This is particularly true at the sights of national disasters. For example, the place where the twin towers used to be certainly incites a different story within every person that views it: a story of a survivor, the memory of someone who was lost, or just the image of the plane flying into the tower. This land carries emotional weight because this event forever altered American history. But this situation occurs on a much smaller scale every day in a city. The places where life-changing events occur will never feel the same as they did before, even though nothing about them has physically changed.
Time in 10:04 is a complicated concept because it moves away from the conventional idea of time. The story exists in multiple presents and a smattering of potential futures. This is very revealing about the narrator, because the reader becomes aware of his greater fear of the future through his tendency to dwell in the past. Both of the major films referenced in the novel create an alternate understanding of time. With Back to the Future, time traveling to the past can dramatically alter the future whereas The Clock makes viewers more entrenched in the present. The looming threat of death for the narrator colors all of his actions, dually making him feel like he is running out of time while refusing to acknowledge the future.