Book of the Month for February 2017
4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Co. (2017)
It should be said up front that I have always been a Paul Auster fan. This bias may turn the reader of this review away from the start, given that Auster is a lot like opera—you either hate him or you love him, and it’s rare to find a position in between. If you find yourself with no opinion about him at all, 4 3 2 1 is an excellent place to start delving into his work, as it is a novel full of the reasons why Auster is easy to love and lacking most of his usual drawbacks. This novel could not have come at a better time in Auster’s career; he has an established reputation and enough decades of editing behind him that he can write a self-indulgent, 866 word behemoth and have a publisher ready to print it along with the experience to pull it off with finesse.
4 3 2 1 stands apart in Auster’s ouvre and in contemporary fiction; it’s a sprawling, fractured bildungsroman that uses a form of multiverse theory to follow the four unique, side by side trajectories of Archie Ferguson, whose multiple plot lines are delineated by a decimal point following the chapter number: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. Structurally it works, but it makes keeping up with each equally elaborate story complicated at times as the main supporting characters recur in each new iteration, and they often swap purposes and fates right along with Ferguson. I found myself wishing that the internet already come up with bullet pointed summaries for each chapter, but even with the occasional confusion and required thoughtful pause to remember which backstory applied to this Ferguson, the format established Auster’s exploration of the nature of choice and its necessary consequences right from the start.
This structure establishes Auster’s exploration of the nature of choice and its necessary consequences right from the start.
Auster is undaunted by a narrative that would engulf a less mature author, and he sets out to write a book that encompasses everything: a swath of settings across the US and France; broad retellings of the American Civil Rights movement, the rise of Kennedy and then Johnson, the Vietnam and Korean Wars; deliberate moments for every human emotion, introspection, and relationship conceivable. It’s winding just writing the summary, but what dazzles the reader is the way in which Auster covers these topics without making any of them cursory or weightless. You can feel the depth of each narrative turn, hoping against hope that this Ferguson will navigate love and loss better than the last go-around, despite knowing all along that his life, like ours, is more complicated than the neat happy ending or a simple tragic demise.
Auster plays on this complexity, stating early on in the narrative: “Yes, anything was possible, and just because things happened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t happen in another. Everything could be different”, and Auster works hard to give us a myriad of ‘differents’ to choose from in these separate, but interlocking works. Throughout the story, brief references crop up about a tome called The Terrestrial Book of Life, which is said to contain a record of the entirety of human history, and you get the sense that Auster is doing his best to write his own version of it, shrinking the whole of human existence to a microcosm of one that is just as rich and varied as the whole of humanity, an endless array of possibility limited only by Ferguson’s actions and circumstances.
While Ferguson is given free will to deal with life’s surprises and misfortunes as he sees fit, Auster makes certain to box him in with the grand obstacles we all face: love, money, and death. There are too many disparate trails to follow, but Auster has guiding principles through each of these sectors of life, and when it comes to relationships Ferguson discovers before the age of five that, “…there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.” This fluidity within his identity can turn a good friend into a passionate lover in another story arch, and supporting characters are given the chance to live alternate paths as Ferguson interacts with them, the ripples of his decisions having impacts on everyone whose lives are intertwined with his.
No matter the fluctuations of friendships and romances, what remains constant through deaths (in some stories) and divorces (in others) is Ferguson’s relationship with his mother which, for once, is not Oedipal or dysfunctional or unbelievable in any way. Ferguson’s father is more complicated, and their relationship changes according to his father’s preoccupation with money and ambition, which, Auster seems to believe, poison everything. Whether Ferguson’s parents have money or don’t, or whether Ferguson accepts his inheritance or not, often changes the entire outcome of Ferguson and his mother’s lives, along with his ability to have close relationships with people of every stripe. These other elements aside, each of Ferguson’s lives is impacted by death in some way, and Auster doesn’t shy away from killing off friends, family, and even the protagonist, the subsequent chapters following Ferguson’s demise marked by blank pages for the rest of the work.
Fergusson is real, and he breathes on the page.
What stands out most about these intricate journeys into Ferguson’s soul is that, while the sentences run longer and longer to fit all of the action in, while a whole life is examined and re-examined again, each path that Ferguson takes is compulsively readable and relatable. Because the reader is introduced to Ferguson as a toddler, it is near impossible not to get attached to him and then subsequently root for him all the way through, even when he commits himself to disaster or disappointing us. He is real, and breathes on the page.
This dedication to demonstrating the whole of Ferguson’s humanity, with all of its flaws and victories and quandaries, is Auster’s great achievement. Though he takes us through decades, Auster brings the essential to the fore without getting bogged down in trivialities or losing our interest, and above all, he reminds us what it is to risk the fullness of our hearts to this grand endeavor we call life. As Ferguson himself points out, we can’t become “…too fretful about the minutiae of daily life to understand that life could run out on you before you’d begun to live,” and we are reminded that we are defined not by fate, but by our own individual grapplings with destiny, which, no matter how they turn out, are always, inevitably, heroic.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.