4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster (2017)
Henry Holt and Co. (2017)
880 pp

Adolescence feeds on drama, it is most happy when living in extremis, and Ferguson was no less vulnerable to the lure of high emotion and extravagant unreason than any other boy his age

I owe Paul Auster a big debt of gratitude. He was one of those authors who helped me bridge the gap between hokey fiction and “serious” literature. Such figures are key in any reader’s life; but what can we make of those writers to whom we are indebted and perhaps biased toward but who we have, to differing lengths, left behind?

The problem with Auster for me is this: in some ways he’s still there, right between those two camps, high and low. 4 3 2 1 doesn’t feel like Booker Prize-winning material; it’s a lolloping romp, an enormo-tome packed with detail, copious, overwhelming data pertaining to the four possible life arcs of its central protagonist. It’s a series of slender novels packed together to form a thinking-person’s airport novel, and while it’s great fun to read (Auster has rarely been anywhere near dull) it doesn’t pack much of a punch.

There are, I think, many meaningful comparisons to be made between Auster and Haruki Murakami. Both are obsessed with city life, what it does to the questing mind often trapped just outside the rambunctious loop, the exceptional Everyman lost in the metropolis, waging some kind of semi-mythical battle, beleaguered in some way by the seismic events passing themselves off as ordinary. Nothing in either author’s work is remotely ordinary; all drops of hitherto unseen strangeness are wrung from quotidian events which were apparently only ever masquerading as bland and trivial.

The Auster/Murakami similiarity is strongest in this regard: neither author is any longer particularly good at quickly and effectively developing atmosphere (hark back to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Moon Palace), and so they latterly (I thought often of 1Q84 while reading this) pile on incident after incident, an onslaught of occurrence after occurrence, in lieu of real gravitas or oddity. Both pummel you with story until, the idea presumably goes, you’re dizzy enough to mistake it for mystery. That said, Auster, after a dry run of slowly-churned maundering works such as Invisible and Sunset Park (and a memoir or two), has regained some of his early vim in these sentences. There’s more life and gamboling fervor here than Auster has managed since probably The Brooklyn Follies, a patchy but affecting 2005 novel that often enough suggested vintage Auster.

The basic setup of this latest: Archie Ferguson is a New York kid we follow as his life unravels in four different iterations. That’s basically it. We see him die, live, languish, flourish, mourn, love, struggle, overcome through four very different (but often also strangely and notably similar) lifespans. Such a premise feels inevitable for Auster, whose previous protagonists have wrestled with the nature of coincidence, fate, and influence, trying to find themselves amid lives teetering on the brink of (often self-sabotaging) collapse and chaos, a rite of passage Auster has often suggested is necessary for anyone who truly wants to live. If you want to be yourself, many of his works have loudly pronounced, you’re going to have to risk plenty, and probably struggle to even discover what that self is. This is his theme: fate versus will, identity versus responsibility. 4 3 2 1 provides ample opportunity for him to interrogate all the old tropes once again.

But successful though 4 3 2 1 largely is, it’s an odd beast in the Auster canon. It’s only by sheer force of will that it works at all. Its machinations are there for all to see. It’s a marvel of industrious urgency over slippery substance. In his early fiction, Auster seemed more interested in becoming a revered-yet-readable Americana-drunk fabulist as opposed to the ranks of unit-shifting reliability. Here he’s settled on a kind of compromise: gone is the curiosity and febrile uncertainty of those early critical successes, but so also is the dry, complacent pomposity he has latterly become so synonymous with.

4 3 2 1 is Auster blatantly attempting to write some kind of summation, a self-referential NY greatest hits collage, and it’s largely an infectious concoction.

Outings of various sorts, nearly always just the two of them together, occasionally with some of Amy’s friends, foreign films at the Thalia on Broadway and Ninety-fifth Street, Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, visits to the Met, the Frick, the Museum of Modern Art, the Knicks at the Garden, Bach at Carnegie Hall, Beckett, Pinter, and Ionesco at small theaters in the Village, everything so close and available, and Amy always knew where to go and what to do, the warrior-princess of Manhattan was teaching him how to find his way around her city, which had rapidly become his city as well. Nevertheless, for all the things they did and all the things they saw, the best part of those Saturdays was sitting in coffee shops and talking, the first rounds of the ongoing dialogue that would continue for years, conversations that sometimes turned into fierce spats when their opinions differed, the good or bad film they had just seen, the good or bad political idea one of them had just expressed, but Ferguson didn’t mind arguing with her, he had no interest in pushovers, the pouting, nincompoop girls who wanted only what they imagined to be the formalities of love, this was real love, complex and deep and pliable enough to allow for passionate discord, and how could he not love this girl, with her relentless, probing gaze and immense, booming laugh, the high-strung and fearless Amy Schneiderman, who one day was going to be a war correspondent or a revolutionary or a doctor who worked among the poor. She was sixteen years old, pushing toward seventeen. The blank slate was no longer entirely blank, but she was still young enough to know she could rub out the words she had already written, rub them out and start again whenever the spirit moved her.

The novel shows us an unfortunate Archie Ferguson coming a fatal cropper via a lighting storm and three other surviving versions that go on to vastly differing fates. In one, his mother is widowed but this tragedy subsequently pushes her towards fulfilling her passion for photography; in another she is subsumed by the booming family business. In which does she get a better deal? we’re asked to consider. In yet another Archie’s father, having had his business kiboshed by a mixture of familial treachery and incompetence, has the time to be a much better father than in the two other timelines in which he survives. We understand that ‘stuff’ is no replacement for family. And a girl called Amy Schneiderman also has a looming part in Archie’s life, whatever version we’re in — echoes of Vonnegut’s “karass,” in which we are inextricably bound in our lives to a small group of people — although in only one does she get the leading role she, and Archie, are otherwise denied.

So what’s Auster suggesting via his vaguely autobiographical prism? That some things are constant whatever we do — unless we get rubbed out by happenstance! — that, despite the underpinning fragility of all lives, we’re destined for certain things, to fall into the orbit of certain people, sometimes providing we catch a break or two, although often regardless. There are, in other words, absolutes. If we can dodge tragedy certain figures will appear and reappear whether we want them to or not. Even if we can’t, they may still retain a position in our lives but one bad bit of luck can initiate a rolling chain of disasters that casts them in a wildly different, less auspicious position. Ultimately, Auster is, and always has been, convinced that larger forces are at work, that strange beneficences or tragedies often befall us according to some unseen design that we are powerless to influence. There is never a meaningless coincidence in an Auster novel; everything is locked in one direction.

The one disparity here is that Auster still seems to suggest that our lives are planned out, but that shit still happens, and that the plan then changes. We’re still not in control; that direction will still be largely beyond our ken; but there will always be things that accompany us through our lives, whatever direction fate has in store for us.

There’s little else going on, as far as I can tell. Auster rolls his sleeves up and gives you the four lives of Ferguson and all the relevant significant U.S. history he can shoehorn in to freight the narrative. Kennedy, MLK, Civil Rights, Vietnam et al, all cultural and sporting touchstones. We could generously suggest he’s making a fairly obvious suggestion: why don’t we question what we’re doing more? Why don’t we understand what matters and head as much as we can in that direction? There are things we have no control over but what about the things we can change? But then the book is quite persuasive about our relative passivity up against the stubborn workings of the world.

The parallelisms and consistencies have a certain reaching mystical flavour about them, but at no time do we marvel at four pieces combining to give us a fifth, much larger piece. Where Auster’s good friend and contemporary Don DeLillo works at larger themes through his players, Auster is much too wrapped up in Archie for overarching philosophical deliberations. DeLillo will spend a page talking about kids vaulting turnstiles trying to get into a baseball game and render it indelible and somehow filled with an aching, fleeting sadness, passing beauty captured, saved. Vivid awe. Auster is not that writer. He is too worried about the game to bother detaining himself with such enriching details, unless they consist of things pertaining to clear magnitude.

And DeLillo would never bother with such a conceit as that which underpins 4 3 2 1; only by placing Archie in four different existences does Auster feel he can stamp them all atop one another, finally brand them on the reader’s mind. DeLillo only needs one version, one tightly drawn sequence of lapidary insights and reverential acuity. Even given four lives, Archie is still no more vivid or significant than he is when we first see him. We like spending time with Archie but we don’t come away with any sense of a multiverse or a multitude of lives reverberating through each other. Gentles ripples on a pond at best. There’s no real mystery or ‘yearning on a grand scale’, merely differing eventuality, a kid locked in four different lives to no emphatic or permanent end.

Auster’s novels were once full of mystery, were once faithful to some kind of artful, measured, stubbornly askew ideal. He was, if not difficult, a little edgy. The Invention of Solitude (still brilliant and amongst his best stuff), although not a novel, hinted at where his subsequent work would go: into disillusionment, identity crises, the flip-side of the American dream and so on. The New York Trilogy, although not as startling as it once seemed, stands up, and is genuinely quite odd. The Music of Chance is still interesting, unconventional, and contains some of his best writing. It’s odd and intriguing, clearly looking back towards Kafka and Beckett as so much of his early work did; the aforementioned Moon Palace, his best work for me, is a fabulous mini-epic, prolonging a tone of anguished longing that suffuses his noteworthy output. The last of his truly notable works, The Book of Illusions, is already much stranger in subject matter than style, which is by now firmly established: portentously elegant, impeccable and cleanly refined. He’s by now appropriating a self-consciously “master storyteller” tone, hushed, high-quality campfire tales. He became a style, and hadn’t budged, until now. What 4 3 2 1 offers is compulsive pacing and a welcome freewheeling approach. He was stuck in a rut. He’s clearly decided to go long and big. He’s loosened his tie, and his sentences, which are suddenly much longer.

That said, passages like the following are the worst of this not always successful lurch up a couple of gears. This read like Booker-winning stuff to you?

Amy was the Schneiderman bonus, the birthday present hidden under a pile of bunched-up wrapping paper that doesn’t get found until after the party is over and all the guests have gone home. It was Ferguson’s fault for not paying more attention to her, but there had been so many things to adjust to in the beginning, and he hadn’t known what to make of the gawky, grinning creature who waggled and flung out her arms when she talked and couldn’t seem to sit still, such an odd-looking girl with those braces on her teeth and that head of tangled, dirty-blond hair, but then the braces came off, her hair was cut into a short bob, and by the time Ferguson turned thirteen he noticed that breasts were beginning to grow inside Amy’s formerly useless training bra and that his already thirteen-year-old stepcousin no longer resembled the girl she had been at twelve.

Such relatively clunky stuff is peppered throughout the 880-page (it’s at least 100-150 pages overlong) novel, but so welcome is Auster’s relinquishing of the gloomy refinement saddling his latter output that you’ll probably be willing to overlook it. 4 3 2 1 reads fast, and only rarely are you expected to plod through a self-conscious, over-ripe longueur. Far better are moments like this, the partial rediscovery of classic-era Auster. Cod-serious short sentences (bar the opener) begone!

There was little or no wind. The storm wasn’t a hurricane or a typhoon, it was a raging downpour with thunder to stir up his bones and lightning to dazzle his eyes, and Ferguson wasn’t the least bit afraid of that lightning, since he was wearing sneakers and had no metal objects with him, not even a wristwatch or a belt with a silver buckle, and therefore he felt safe and exultant under the shelter of the trees, looking out at the gray wall of water that stood between him and the cabin, watching the dim, almost entirely obscured figure of his counselor Bill, who was standing in the open doorway and seemed to be shouting to him, or shouting at him as he gestured for Ferguson to come back to the cabin, but Ferguson couldn’t hear a word he was saying, not with the noise of the rain and the thunder, and especially not when Ferguson himself began to howl, no longer George on his mission to save Lennie but simply Ferguson himself, a thirteen-year-old boy wailing in exaltation at the thought of being alive in such a world as the one he had been given that morning, and even when a shaft of lightning struck the top branch of one of the trees, Ferguson paid no attention to it, for he knew he was safe, and then he saw that Bill had left the cabin and was running toward him, why in the world would he do that, Ferguson asked himself, but before he could answer the question, the branch had broken off from the tree and was falling toward Ferguson’s head. He felt the impact, felt the wood crack down on him as if someone had clubbed him from behind, and then he felt nothing, nothing at all or ever again, and as his inert body lay on the water-soaked ground, the rain continued to pour down on him and the thunder continued to crack, and from one end of the earth to the other, the gods were silent.

That’s a particularly representative sequence: “raging thunder to stir up his bones and lightning to dazzle his eyes” and “a thirteen-year-old boy wailing in exaltation at the thought of being alive in such a world as the one he had been given that morning” are straight out of the “expansive Auster” playbook of old. Gone are the stuffy and ponderous chapters, replaced by a commitment to propulsion. What’s lost: “literary” paragraphs. Instead we turn the pages. (In this regard it’s a particularly strange pick for a perplexing Booker shortlist.)

But 4 3 2 1 is worth your time 75% of its time, and the page-count is nothing to worry about. The latest Auster is a bludgeoning slab of story. It’s neither particularly profound nor more than gently thought-provoking. The premise is not always served as well as a better writer might. But 4 3 2 1 still showcases a fine writer who has possibly run out of ideas admirably disgorging himself of a life’s work and obsessions for a hefty cumulative blast of backward-looking fun. He doesn’t just rummage in the back-catalog: he tips it upside down and spreads and reassembles the emptied contents into as felicitous an arrangement as he can. This reader was appreciative.

Another summer in hot New York with the crazy people and the radios, listening to the snoring and farting of the subtenant in Amy’s room next door as he lay in his bed at night, sweating, sweating through his shirts and socks every day by noon and walking down the streets with his fists clenched, a knifepoint mugging every other hour in the neighborhood now, four women raped in the elevators of their buildings, be prepared, keep your eyes open, and try not to breathe when you walked past a garbage can. Long days in the million-book Parthenon replica called Butler Library, taking notes on prerevolutionary Columbia, then known as King’s College, and the living conditions of mid-eighteenth-century New York (pigs running through the streets, horse shit everywhere), the first college in the state, the fifth college anywhere in the country, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Livingston, first chief justice of the Supreme Court, first secretary of the Treasury, author of the final draft of the U.S. Constitution, member of the five-man committee that composed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers as young men, as boys, as toddlers running through the streets with the pigs and horses, and then home after five or six hours in musty Butler to type up his notes for Fleming, whom he met with twice a week in the air-conditioned West End, always there and never in Fleming’s office or apartment, for even if the kind, decorous, deeply intelligent historian never laid a hand on Ferguson, his eyes were on him continually, searching for a sign of encouragement or some glance of reciprocal longing, and that was enough to contend with, Ferguson felt, since he liked Fleming and couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Meanwhile, Amy was in hippie-land three thousand miles to the west, Amy was in the Garden of Eden, Amy was roaming down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley during the Summer of Love, and Ferguson read and reread her letters as often as he could in order to go on hearing her voice, carrying them to the library with him every morning to use as anti-boredom pills whenever his work threatened to put him into a coma, and the letters he wrote back to her were light and fast and as funny as he could make them, with no talk about the war or the rancid smells in the streets or the women raped in elevators or the gloom that had settled in his heart. You seem to be having the time of your life, he wrote in one of the forty-two letters he sent to her that summer. Back here in New York, I’m having the life of my times.

If you haven’t read Auster, read 4 3 2 1 and put the better works aside for the beach. If you have read Auster you’ll discover nothing new, but you may well rediscover lots of lovely forgotten things. The novel at the very least puts recent disappointments to bed.

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