“In some ways it’s a reward…; in other ways (it’s) a test…” – 4321 by Paul Auster


I’ve been reading (and re-reading, more than almost any other writer) Paul Auster for about 25 years now, and in that time one of the things I’ve found myself saying as I drew to the close of each novel was: I wish Paul Auster would write a longer book. I was thinking in the 500 page mark. I’ve wanted a 500 page Paul Auster novel for a long, long time. Now, in his 70th year, he has given me what I want. And then some. 4 3 2 1, his first novel in seven years, clocks in at a swaggering 866 pages, roughly three times the size of the majority of his books. Auster is on record as saying he thinks it will be the book he is remembered for (we don’t entirely agree, we think that will be New York Trilogy). In some ways, it’s a reward for Auster’s constant reader (there are Easter eggs throughout the book, appearances from characters who have appeared in novels from Moon Palace to The Book of Illusion and Oracle Night); in other ways, 4 3 2 1 is a test.

This is a book about a character called Ferguson. Auster considered naming the book after him. We begin (and end) with an apocryphal story about Ferguson’s grandfather, who arrives, an immigrant, in New York and finds first hand that small things can have large impacts (he tells an official he’s forgotten his name and the Yiddish he uses – “Ikh hob fargessen” – becomes his American name, Ichabod Ferguson). The first chapter (1.0) centres on Rose and Stanley, in the main, Ferguson’s parents, and culminates with the moment when “for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the Earth.” And then – and then the business of 4 3 2 1 begins. Now, just as with Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, it is best to stop reading this review, or any reviews, and just read the book. If, for whatever reason, you’re willing to know a little more before you dive in then know this: the book proceeds with groups of chapters (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1, 2.2 etc) in which we see a slightly different Archibald Isaac Ferguson grow. This is  4 3 2 1‘s thing. You probably won’t read a review of this book that doesn’t mention either Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’. It may be that you are quickly taken by the mellifluous way in which Auster switches from Archie to Archie (and even reading knowing that the Archie of 1.1 is not the Archie of 1.2 etc does not stop you from being snagged by the differences, in much the same way that you’re snagged by the differences in David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide); it may be that you find yourself asking yes, but why – why are we being treated to four versions of this person’s life? (because there is a nagging need for an explanation, an origin story, a reason, something to tell us why Archie divided into four – this reader was hoping for a chapter in which Archie’s mother tells of being exposed to cosmic rays during a scientific mission to outer space, as was the case with the original Fantastic Four). Each of these – both the mellifluousness and the nagging – recede as the novel advances.

And so you read about Archie 1, who wishes for a sibling and doesn’t quite see the whole picture when his father’s business is robbed by one of his uncles, Archie 2 who broke his leg falling out of a tree, Archie 3 who lost his father in a fire, Archie 4 whose father does well and who edges the family into a world of wealth and prosperity. From the get-go, you notice the period detail. The long and flowing sentences that Auster does not usually employ. As you move into the second round of Archies (the 2.1, the 2.2 etc), you initially flick back and forth (which Archie was this?) – but that doesn’t last either. Eventually you give yourself up to the flow of the book. All of these events are Archie. Possible Archies. Possibly Archie’s parents stay together. Possibly they split up. Possibly his mother is widowed. In some worlds, Archie does not survive. (In any world, Archie doesn’t survive, no one cheats death and the title is, if nothing else, a countdown.) His Aunt Mildred marries, two different people, or doesn’t, or is a lesbian. Archie and his mother are extremely close. Archie grows apart from his parents. Archie sees how a lack of money eats at you; sees how a surfeit of money changes you. Archie likes baseball and reading and music. These are fairly constant. He lives in one place, he lives in another. The major events of the world (the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam war) happen around him. He is usually an observer and not a participant. He lives in Paris, he lives in America. He has a relationship with Amy, he doesn’t, he doesn’t again. There are girls and there are boys, there are women and there are men. He reads and he watches movies. He tells us what he reads and he tells us what he sees. Ferguson questions the existence of God; he’s precocious in his thinking (here he is at 15: “he had accumulated enough memories to know that the world around him was continually being shaped by the world within him”). He causes trouble and pain for those around him. HIs problem as he comes to see it is:

“he needed to be loved, loved more than most people needed to be loved, entirely loved without respite through every waking moment of his life, loved even when he did things that made him unlovable”

There comes a point, round about the 500 pages mark, when you start to wonder how much space is being devoted to adolescence and how much time and space will be devoted to adult Ferguson, married Ferguson, successful (or otherwise) Ferguson. Know then that alongside the praise of Dickens (he takes issues with Holden Caulfield’s Dickens dissing in Catcher in the Rye), this is a kind of refracted David Copperfield and none of these Ferguson’s make it all the way to adult life (which isn’t to say they all die). The book ends with a meta-flourish, which won’t surprise Auster fans too much. But as it sinks in that we are going to stay with Ferguson as a young man for the most part, and as the book embraces the detail of university life, there is a corresponding lull, a sense that we are getting a little too much detail (about life in Harvard or life in Columbia or life in Paris).

Yes, we get “he had several selves, inside him, even many selves, a strong self and a weak self, a thoughtful self and an impulsive self”, we understand that the times in which he moves through, “when the world was on fire and you didn’t have the equipment to put out the flames, when the fire was in you as much as it was around you”, are calamitous and momentous (much as the times in which we find ourselves are – and there are a lot of vertiginous moments when you think he could just as easily be writing about now as then). Auster is very good on what Bruce Springsteen, in his biography Born to Run described as:

“Dread – the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured – was in the air”

And yet, for all that, there are longueurs. There really could have been more editing. We do get a lot of lists. There are a lot of similarities between the Archies. There could have been more difference. We know, don’t we, that these are thinly veiled possible Austers because that is the kind of game he likes to play and yet, for all that, even at the furthest reaches of his experience did he not think – well, I could’ve gone to Vietnam, I could’ve been in the lobby of the hotel when Bobby Kennedy was killed, I could’ve been anywhere. Now, we know (don’t we?) that he’s making a kind of It’s a Wonderful Life style point – that the smallest changes can send someone off on a different track. But there is arson and murder and robbery and death in the opening of the book. Are we saying that Ferguson is so inalienably Ferguson from the off that he couldn’t consider a life of crime himself (beyond stealing books from the university bookshop)? So there are elements of frustration. But we did not find the book dull, as the New Yorker critic admitted. If it had been 500 or so pages, it’s possible it would have made a tighter and more dramatic book. It’s certainly sturdy (figuratively and literally). And the writing is dense and informed (we know Auster has lived through versions of much of this, from reading his other books – the whores and the poverty in Paris for example, the almost being struck by lightning). It’s just that, overall, central conceit aside, the book is a little too straight for its own good (especially when placed alongside David Mean’s recent Hystopia, which also refracts American history through a skewed lens).

Any Cop?: Not quite the book we’ve been waiting 25 years then, after all, but still enjoyable, still interesting, still up there with his best work – just not quite the masterpiece we might have wanted.


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