Book review

Even if Paul Auster’s ‘4 3 2 1’ wins the Man Booker, it is hard to say whether it is worth reading

A doorstopper of a novel, it tells four different versions of the protagonist’s life story.

Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – is an ambitious coming of age story, a quasi-autobiographical novel. Both Auster and his protagonist were born in March, 1947. It is a tale of “what ifs”, of how chance rolls its dice. The novel follows four parallel lives of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, of Russian-Jewish parentage, born on March 3, 1947. This is Paul Auster’s first novel in 7 years.

At 866 pages, the longest book Auster has published thus far, the novel is a doorstopper. All four Archie Fergusons start with the same story, a grandfather who arrives in the United States with a Jewish name, which gets converted upon arrival to Ferguson on Ellis Island; a tortuous family history; an entrepreneurial father whose relationship with his siblings is difficult, a childhood in suburban New Jersey.

Many of the novel’s characters are common to multiple timelines: Stanley, the father, always runs a furniture store, and Rose, the mother, is a photographer. There’s Aunt Mildred in academia, a duo of unscrupulous uncles, and a girl called Amy, who is at times Archie’s sweetheart, sometimes his friend and at times his stepsister. The adult Archie Ferguson alternatively becomes a journalist, a memoir writer, a novelist. Archie Ferguson himself does not change much.

Clever but turgid

Archie Ferguson’s life splits into four narrative threads. This is an intriguing literary device. Each chapter encompasses a decade of Archie’s life. Auster tells all the four stories simultaneously, giving us four versions of Chapter 1 (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4), followed by four versions of Chapter 2 (2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4) and so on. This is structurally tedious and brings about a discussion on how the book is best read: in a linear fashion or in an alternative combination that renders the parallel narrative lines more digestible. In each of the variations, however, a fateful event unfolds at Stanley’s business, leading to changed circumstances. The family could be rich, or middle class, or fall off an economic cliff.

Unlike Paul Auster’s spare, metafictional The New York Trilogy, 4 3 2 1 is often turgid and dense. Archie Ferguson is not a very interesting protagonist, and his story, repeated four times with minor variations, becomes a challenging read. Often self-indulgent and discursive, it is hard to stay attentive till the end. Auster’s scope is ambitious and the novel is an immersive experience of the great post-war American story. It covers the Vietnam war, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the rise of Mohammed Ali and the civil-rights movement.

Kate Atkinson’s wonderful and inventive Life After Life (2013), uses a similar plot device of chance. In her novel, the main character dies repeatedly, only to get resurrected under different circumstances. Her novel is both effervescent and gripping. It is imbued with drama and against the broad swathe of World War II, remains compelling till the last page. Atkinson managed the divergent stories very efficiently.

Too many words

4 3 2 1 is a bold and innovative experiment. It weaves together fate, people, history. and events that shape their lives. The main problem with 4 3 2 1 is its verbosity. Pages of details of Archie’s life keep stacking up, making for a stagnant narrative. The novel could have used an editor who was willing to prune at least 100 unnecessary pages. The book brings to focus the 1960s, with Auster discussing the student demonstrations at Columbia and the Newark riots. The novel’s focus on the minutiae of events tend to wear the reader down. Auster’s prose however, is sure footed and keeps you hooked.

In 4 3 2 1, Auster uses long, paragraph length sentences. This paragraph serves as an example:

Feeling comfortable in their front corner booth, however, they lingered at the West End and never made it to the restaurant, dining on their favorite bar’s abominable pot roast and noodles and then staying on until two-thirty in the morning as they slurped down vast quantities of alcohol in several of its best known forms, mostly scotch for Ferguson, mediocre blended scotch that led him on a bumpy ride to the nethermost bowels of drunkenness, but until he dissolved into a slurry, blotto, double-visioned torpor and was lugged by his two wobbling companions back to Howard and Amy’s apartment on West 113th Street, where he spent the early morning hours passed out on the sofa, he remembered that Howard and Noah had ganged up on him at one point and had criticized him for a number of things, some of which he could still remember, some of which he couldn’t, but among those he could remember were the following…”

Events roll by as if they were place holders in the plot. 4 3 2 1 is four books in one, and like many long stories, its focus wavers and stalls. Auster is a clever writer, and the novel is a gargantuan feat of plot and structure.

When you finish 4 3 2 1, it’s still difficult to say whether the novel is worth the effort of reading it. Those who are familiar with Auster’s lithe, post-modern novels could be disappointed. This is not by any means, a nimble novel. 4 3 2 1 is also not a novel that can be ignored. It demands your attention and asks you to follow the narrative with precision. You are left craving for more Auster-like eeriness, which remains an unrequited wish here. Auster’s craft in using alternative realities, in seeing the unseen, is evident in 4 3 2 1. But reading 4 3 2 1 is a commitment not for the faint-hearted.

4 3 2 1, Paul Aster, Faber & Faber

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