4321 - a book review

4 3 2 1
Paul Auster, Faber & Faber, 2017, ISBN 978-0-571-32463-7, 866pp

This is a big book which I bought because I had read an interview with the author in the March issue of Monocle magazine. I had not read any of Auster’s other novels (there are several as well as poems, screenplays and essays). Two things appealed to me as I read the interview. The first was that Auster says the book was largely improvised; there was no real plan. And the second was that Auster writes in longhand before he types up his work. Both these things strike me as being usual: the first because it just seems random and the second because I am always slightly envious of anyone that uses a pen.

“4 3 2 1” is by any measure a monumental work. It weighs in at 866 pages and is a story about childhood, youth and early manhood in America. The protagonist, whose name is Ferguson, was born in 1947 so his experiences in America happened at the same time that I was growing up in England. There are some major differences particularly in relation to involvement in the Vietnam war. We follow Ferguson through four parallel lives. There are four Fergusons but three of them are imaginary and we find out at the end of the book (on page 862) which is the real Ferguson. The idea is clever (but not original, think of Sliding Doors) though it is sometimes difficult to remember which Ferguson you are reading about at any particular point. The book is arranged into seven major sections and each section is divided into four parts, one for each Ferguson. The exception is the first section in which the first part describes how any particular Ferguson came to be.

Auster is a brilliant writer with a startling imagination. In this book he writes stories that keep you reading but the stories themselves are not the point of the book; the stories are the threads from which the characters are woven. His prose is descriptive and engaging and his underlying research seems to be thorough. He deals compellingly with the attitude of the youth of America to the Vietnam war. He describes the student unrest at American universities in the late 1960s (when we all marched against the war in Vietnam) and the brutality of the police response and the dubious reporting by the New York Times. In retrospect, I find the decisions of Lyndon Johnson in relation to Vietnam peculiar, and the actions of Nixon later to be almost incomprehensible. But that is seeing history through the lens of hindsight.

Auster wants us to feel angry about the injustices and prejudices and contradictions that defined America in the 1960s. But I think that he may also be drawing parallel between then and now. This book is such a meisterwerk that it must have been started before the Trump bandwagon started to roll in earnest. Yet I could not help drawing parallels between what I was reading in “4 3 2 1” and what I infer from the rhetoric of the current US administration. In the Monocle interview Auster himself observes how little seems to have changed in American life over the last fifty years.

The idea of writing about the imagined parallel lives of one individual is not new. It mirrors, in a way, the current scientific debate about whether there are multiple universes each of which contains a different copy of everything (see, for example, Cosmos Issue 72, Dec-Jan 2-17). But this book is essentially about chance and about choice. Both chance and choice are driven by circumstance. The book opens with a description of where the name Ferguson came from, it describes Ferguson’s parents, Rose and Stanley and how they met. But then we are taken on the four separate journeys, driven by circumstance, that the four Fergusons make. Not all the Fergusons make it through to the end of the book. The worlds in which each Ferguson lives are different; some of the characters are the same but many are different. The common characters also follow different trajectories and enjoy (or not) different relationships with each particular Ferguson.

The length of this book demands the question “should I bother reading it?” Given the 866 pages each Ferguson gets about 215 pages (not all the Fergusons make it to end so this is an average). Each Ferguson is roughly a book in itself and I suppose you could read these parallel lives sequentially. But you would miss the point if you did so. Auster may be showing off in producing a book of this size, and he shows off the breadth of his intellectual enquiries in his writing, but I think he means the book to be read as a book about circumstance and what it means to the choices that we make. He wants us to make comparisons and look for similarities. This is not a book about retribution or redemption; it’s just a very long and interestingly and engagingly told story. It does require some commitment and dedication but, although I reached the end with a sense of relief, I also felt that I had spent two weeks in the daily presence of a wonderfully imaginative storyteller.

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