Published in the Sunday Times
4 3 2 1
Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)
In the first cycle of Paul Auster’s colossal new book, a young boy is recovering in bed, having broken his leg falling out of a tree. He is musing on things more suited to an older child: on happenstance and destiny, on what is predetermined and what is fortuity or accidental. If his friend Chuckie Brower hadn’t asked him out to play, if his parents hadn’t bought a house with a tree in the backyard, if his parents had bought a house somewhere else and he wouldn’t even know Chuckie Brower. “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree.”
“So there, right at the beginning” says Paul Auster, “we’re being told what kind of book this is going to be, and how to read it.” He is speaking from his home in Brooklyn, his famously gravelled voice is warm and he is genial and expansive, despite dozens of interviews and appearances for the new book.
Now 70, Auster is a giant of American letters, frequently bracketed with De Lillo and Roth, or Thomas Pynchon. He is known as a writer of concision and elegant brevity and in latter years there have been murmurs of the Nobel Prize.
At 866 pages, though, 4 3 2 1 is a behemoth, a sprawling Bildungsroman that owes more to the German writer Heinrich Von Kleist than to spare modern stylists. A character’s description of Von Kleist could be applied to Auster here too: “The speed of his sentences, the propulsion. He tells and tells but doesn’t show much, which everyone says is the wrong way to go about it, but I like the way his stories charge forward.”
This is the story – or rather, four stories – of Archibald Ferguson, a Jewish boy born in New Jersey in 1947. He is the only child of Rose and Stanley and first we read of how they met and married. After that the story splits into four different trajectories, four different roads that Ferguson will travel.
In each of the contiguous versions, things change. The circumstances of his parents, for instance. In one Stanley dies in a fire, in another he divorces Rose. One Archie never has to worry about money, another gets by on scholarships and hauling furniture. One is bisexual, another learns he is sterile and will never have children. The extended cast of characters is the same, too, so his cousin Amy becomes a stepsister in one version, in another she’s no relation but Ferguson’s first great love.
Round and around the cycles whirl, charging on, intricately detailed, sentences streaming at times for half a page.
There are important similarities between the four. Every one of them is athletic and adores baseball and basketball, each will become a writer of some sort – poet, journalist, novelist – each loves old movies and classical music. All are precocious readers.
Midway through the book, however, they start to blur and one almost needs family trees to refer to. Is this the Ferguson whose cousin Francie is a saint or a harridan? Whose mother is a brilliant or a middling photographer or who has succumbed to depression? It is frustrating and all the reader can do is be carried along until it crystallises again.
“I didn’t want to write one of those wild fantasy books,” Auster explains. “Where one Archie becomes an astronaut, another becomes a scientist or a criminal. It didn’t seem plausible. They are the same genetic person, they have the same parents, after all. I didn’t want to do anything that seemed juvenile. I wanted to write a very serious book about human possibility.”
It is not a spoiler to say that one Archie dies, appallingly, at the age of 13 at summer camp. Another’s friend dies, equally awfully, at summer camp, a death that will stain that Archie’s life forever. Auster himself witnessed such a death at camp when he was 14, something he says has influenced his writing ever since. In much of his work cruel accidents or disaster strikes. This, then, seems to be the apogee of this theme.
“I think it’s the reason I wrote this book,” he agrees. “I was right next to my friend when he was killed in a lightning storm. It was probably the most important thing that happened to me in my young life. I had a sudden understanding that anything can happen at any moment to anybody. And that the solid ground I thought I’d been walking on up to that moment was not very solid at all. It’s affected me in all kinds of ways and certainly as a writer.”
4 3 2 1 is being described as “the crowning work of a masterful writer’s extraordinary career”. It’s going to be hard to cap that, but Auster has other plans. He was most recently in the headlines describing Donald Trump as “deranged and demented” and is determined to make his voice heard. He is set to become the head of PEN America next year. “Writing articles isn’t very useful, “ he says. “Anything I would publish would be read by people who agree with me. Whereas PEN has more of a presence in the world, a platform from which one can speak out more effectively.”
It reminds us of a note he wrote to JM Coetzee, with whom he has a close friendship. Their letters were published in 2013 in the book Here And Now, and in one he teases Coetzee about their advancing years. “I feel it is our duty to gripe and scold, to attack the hypocrisies, injustices, and stupidities of the world we live in. Let the young roll their eyes when we speak… we must carry on with utmost vigilance, scorned prophets crying into the wilderness – for just because we’re fighting a losing battle that doesn’t mean we should abandon the fight.”
Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood
*Listen to the podcast of Paul Auster here.
4 3 2 1 is also available as an eBook.