4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster / Henry Holt and Co. / 2017 / 880 pages / ISBN: 978-1627794466
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Paul Auster – a writer known for brevity and concision, at least most of the time – re-emerges with his first novel in seven years and presents us with this; a doorstop wedge of a tome which intimidates with its physicality before the reader has even opened the cover.
Or maybe it was; maybe this is the book Paul Auster always wanted to write. “Was” or “wasn’t”, “is” or “isn’t” – it doesn’t matter really, because 4 3 2 1 is not one novel, but four. What begins with a single stem quickly diverges into four distinct tendrils, which curve over and over one another on their way to separate conclusions.
Some flourish, some flounder, others are pruned cruelly in their prime. And, of course, in there somewhere, fluttering between realities like an extra-dimensional moth, is Paul himself. It’s left up to the reader to work out which bits carry a hint of autobiography and which are purely fictional, but even the most scant bit of research shows us that Paul’s life is reflected on more than a few of the book’s 866 pages.
4 3 2 1 begins, as many grand American tales do, with a story of immigrant transience. A young Belorussian Jew heads west in search of a better life, a language mix-up results in the formation of a wholly new name and identity, and a family tree pulls up its roots, exchanging an Old World existence for a New World one. Then, in 1947, Archibald Ferguson is born; an event so shattering that it splits the narrative into four.
Young Paul — sorry, Young Archie — is a handsome, athletically gifted young man, until he gives that up and decides to become academically gifted instead. We see him at Princeton, we see him at Columbia, we see him at Brooklyn College, we see him in Paris, we see him disfigured, we see him beaten by cops, we see him battling racist bigots, we see him fall upon hard times, we see him thrust skywards (once literally), we see romances flourish between same-sex couples, opposite-sex couples, we see bodies sold for money, we see big, unstable loves and lusts grow and collapse. To put it bluntly; we see a lot of Archie.
This is understandable. After all, we are pursuing our precocious hero across four intertwining narratives, exploring the rabbit holes of four concurrent life spans. On the surface of it, 4 3 2 1 appears to be the ultimate paean to ‘what might have been’; a sort of philosophical, sentimental companion piece to the controversial alternate universe theories put forward by particle physicists. In Archie’s universe, or universes – lovers become sisters, or cousins, enemies become friends, the dead are resurrected only to die again, libidinous grandfathers, well, they continue to be libidinous grandfathers.
It is a shame that it all feels a little perfunctory at times. The narrative gods deliver Archie a challenge, he frets over it for a bit, then either some startling Deus ex Machina (a rich aunt, maybe, or a transatlantic admirer) drops out of the sky, or Archie himself bats it to one side, and it’s on with the show. There is little in the way of dynamism, growth or struggle; just an itinerary of small but inevitable victories during which Archie never leaves the frame. The concept of the book may be an innovative one, but in execution, it becomes simply four linear narratives played out side-by-side; the literary equivalent of a third-person shooter video game, in which everything is viewed over the shoulder of its primary character.
There are some pleasing call-backs and sly winks in the audience’s direction which are fun to pick up, particularly early on. Witnessing the differing fortunes and characters of Archie’s father’s family is amusing, and it is here that the central gravity holding the four pieces together starts to weaken and the whole thing begins to unravel. This sense of instability – the idea of an unfolding flower of narration in which anything could happen – delivers the novel’s first major thrill. Over almost 900 pages, however, it starts to drag, and it is difficult to keep track of which Archie, which Amy, which Rose we are reading about in the later stages.
But, perhaps, to take 4 3 2 1 as a personal odyssey across four separate spins of fate’s wheel is to miss the point somewhat. Archie Ferguson, in all his forms, is sharp, intelligent, and politically engaged. The events of his life – like those of all our lives – are relayed as long tangled threads, tacked up between the fence posts of cultural upheaval and political turmoil. It is worth mentioning that events in a wider scope do not change – Auster keeps the work very much rooted in a world which we can all recognise. Kennedy is assassinated on each spin of the wheel, the Six Day War breaks out without fail, the My Lai massacre is perpetrated, the Beat revolution sweeps the Village, Harlem goes up in flames. At each juncture, Archie is affected; a piece of his existence is given to each event, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, again, the style of the book’s prose lets it down. Sometimes, it feels as if Auster is engaging in a space-filling exercise, having made a bet with someone that his next novel was going to top 800 pages; world events are rattled off in sequence, monthly expenses are detailed, tenuous and complex relationships between minor characters are explained unnecessarily, and, if Archie writes a short story, there’s a good chance you’re going to be able to read it in full over the next couple of pages.
This style is a little alienating. It drives a wedge between the reader and Auster’s subject matter and makes it all feel a little self-indulgent; as if the author is simply spinning four new lives for himself. While Auster-contemporary Phillip Roth grappled with society’s reaction to the violence in Newark and to the anti-war movement in American Pastoral, Auster leads us there by the hand, placing Archie centre stage once again, explaining the unrest – listing causes and outcomes, textbook-style – and then moving on.
Only once does Archie leave the frame of the narrative. Only once does Auster take a step back and show us how the book could have been written differently. In a small scene, deep, deep into the denouement of one of the narratives, we see Archie through the eyes of another; those of a downstairs neighbour, a wounded veteran who lives vicariously through the lives and loves of the young writer in the room above, and achieves sexual gratification from listening to the creaking of Archie’s bedsprings as he turns in for the night.
Is this us? Is Auster showing to us the act of reading in this portrayal of a lonely man seeking comfort in the existences of others? It is a rare moment of ambiguity and nuance in a sprawling novel, and its quality reinforces the idea of 4 3 2 1 as a missed opportunity. Perhaps, in another universe, Auster approached this mammoth project in a different way, and perhaps he hit the mark.