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4 3 2 1

Review

4 3 2 1

4 3 2 1 looks like the kind of book that people would read because it makes them look smart. Or at least it would have made them look smart back in the day when people carried books to prove something about their intricate and capable brain. Now someone might download it in eBook format, but this is not a book that would find itself and its many words and ideas comfortable performing on so small a stage. Or should I say pontificating? Because even though Paul Auster’s latest effort is not a bid for proselytizing about the inanities and sometimes holy mistakes of life, it is a novel of ideas. Big ideas. Big storylines. Big characters. Or rather one big character and four parallel lives he lives. Are you confused? Yes, I was at first too, but Auster’s poetry takes over and helps him tell a story that is at once epic and intimate, expressive and very, very quiet at the same time.

The book tells the tales of the four parallel lives of one American immigrant, Archibald Isaac Ferguson. He was born of Russian-Jewish descent in New Jersey in 1947. The first indication we have of this multi-platform story is that one of the first chapters ends when a despicable uncle raids his father’s white goods store and then the next chapter rewinds the narrative, making it clear that the store burned down but wasn’t robbed. When the store burns down a third time, Ferguson’s father is in it. The final possibility is all about how the business is a great American success. What is Auster doing? It feels like he consulted with Joyce or Borges and learned how to meta the hell out of one man’s life story. This kind of metafiction is so postmodern, it seems intergalactic, a tale more fitting for a Christmas episode of “Dr. Who” than a brave and serious literary outing. Yet, somehow, no matter how weird it all seems, it is compelling enough for you to want to know what happens next.

"4 3 2 1 is a blast-off into a rich, rewarding and sometimes stultifyingly confusing read that still warrants your time. If you put in the effort, you can get much out of it."

According to Auster, Ferguson is “still too young at that point to understand.” He tells us that Ferguson’s parents appear “in the all-inclusive, authorised edition of The Book of Terrestrial Life,” an alien work that we happen upon five times in the narratives. It helps us place 4 3 2 1 as a Rothian coming-of-age tale of sexual longing and literary ambition, the son of a stranger in a strange world, an immigrant like all others --- looking for a new place to plant their life, make real their dreams, eschew the stiff laws of past generations to become something bolder, braver, better. The hero could love Amy Schneiderman or Brian Mischevski; he might attend Columbia or Princeton, and be a BMOC or not; he might turn into a sports reporter or a movie critic. The four lives offer so many options. Ferguson could die in a major car accident or walk away injured. Somehow the storylines exist very separately and almost take us back to square one. They don’t seem to add up to anything bigger because there are so many storylines in all.

However, regardless of this disconnect, the stories on their own are engaging and interesting. Every Ferguson life is one that could speak well on its own to the immigrant experience, a topic worth pursuing today even more than ever before as our America redefines, against its better judgment, what makes value in a life of someone whose family was not here since Pangaea. America is evolving, just like Ferguson, offering many paths to many people at a time when those paths are changing and evolving themselves. I think Auster is trying to reflect some of the possiblities inherent in the American ideal of being whatever you put your mind to, but he is also smart enough to know that environment, access to education and health care, and so many other factors will direct the course of one’s life in a more potent way than would be determined by the boat in which your ancestors made their way to these shores.

As for literary merit, the experiment is just that and remains so. There is no satisfying juxtaposition of the storylines, so you feel as if you are reading a Choose Your Own Adventure tale that was filled in by your older brother. Someone has made the choices for you, but they are no less compelling and interesting because you are looking at all the choices at once. And, of course, there are so many other choices for Ferguson, too, but Auster has clearly decided that four is the best amount for this tome --- just like believing that the future that is presenting itself to us right now can be changed if we decide it needs to be. Auster is an old hand at poetic longing, and this book provides so much that you may find yourself having to take a deep breath before jumping into any of its many parts.

4 3 2 1 is a blast-off into a rich, rewarding and sometimes stultifyingly confusing read that still warrants your time. If you put in the effort, you can get much out of it. So, dear reader, my advice is to take your chances. I think it’s worth the shot.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on February 3, 2017

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster

  • Publication Date: January 31, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1627794468
  • ISBN-13: 9781627794466