4 3 2 1: A Novel
Reading Paul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1 is a bit like wandering around in an old medina with Woody Allen and Leo Tolstoy. It’s vast, and intriguing, there are arguments and it’s easy to get lost. You might end up leaving before you buy anything, because a purchase seems so complicated to negotiate.
As in much of Auster’s work, there is a conceit at play here. The premise of the novel is to tell the coming of age story, or stories, of one Archie Ferguson, through four variations, (4, 3, 2, 1) on his life. The hero is always the same person, a smart, athletic, Jewish boy born in Newark in 1947.
In 4 3 2 1, his parents are Rose and Stanley. Rose is always a talented photographer, and Stanley sells appliances but things diverge from there. Different fates await the characters in each strand, as fortune, fame, family, and fire conspire to create four alternate life stories.
What would become of Archie if his parents were divorced or one died? What if he was a baseball star, or a talented writer, or gay? What if he had money, or didn’t—or all of the above? Although the various plot twists in each telling change the course of Archie’s life, it is really the degree to which they don’t change his life that is most interesting here. Archie Ferguson, born where and when he was, can only be it seems, one kind of Archie.
The supporting characters also retain their core identities; Rose and Stanley are never what one would call a happy couple, though in one version they are a successful couple. Aunt Mildred, the intellectual has various levels of success and romance, but never gives up her highbrow books. Stanley’s brothers, present or absent, are never good guys. No one in this family does anything too unexpected; no one takes up pig farming in Iowa, because these are New Yorkers after all and this matters.
All of the lives here are woven in to a masterfully rendered cultural milieu of mid century American life in New York, which even more than personal fate, seems to shape the destiny of the people in it: baseball, Catskills summer camps, first sexual experiences, art house movies, Columbia and the free speech movement, a moving scene of Archie at his Vietnam draft interview. We learn what was read, what was viewed, worn, driven. Auster is brilliant at showing us the ways that the social and political history of a country determine the shape of one’s life almost regardless of whatever else happens. The novel brings out the play between our sense that we are independent free will beings and the ways that our choices have already been constricted by the dice roll of birth.
Throughout the book the four different strands/lives are interspersed, and we are left to our own devices to line up the starts and stops. Auster does loop back in time to remind us, say on page 545, that he is the same boy whose mother took him out of school for several months, on page 187.
Even readers who savor vast discursive novels might agree, that it would be easier to follow the different lives and to feel the resonances and nuances between each life, if it weren’t so long. The power of brevity, which Auster once put to such good use in the 150 pages of City of Glass, is abandoned here. While it takes some space to tell four life stories, too many authorial indulgences weaken the stories momentum. Multiple digressions, like the 15 pages devoted to the story about the talking shoes Archie writes in fifth grade, or the long retelling of various movie plots like Potemkin, or 1960s news reports can make readers feel they’ve spent several of their own lifetimes reading this.
But just when we’ve almost given up, we find ourselves swept down yet another New York street by the naturalness vividness of Auster’s prose. It is summer and hot, and he is taking the bus to meet a girlfriend on the Upper West Side. We are on that bus too, feeling the future ahead. In so many ways he is a master storyteller of “this American life.” His descriptions of growing up, of the struggles of childhood and adolescence, how children think of parents, the pleasures of early love, especially early love, are perfectly rendered.
Auster writes of familiar things, seen in familiar ways. Even when disaster strikes, we are given considerate and polite advanced warning. Of course disaster does strike. And at the end of the four lives of Archie only one is left standing—or left writing.
Throughout the work the narrator maintains his distance, there is very little dialogue. The story is “told” as if to remind us that this is after all a novel. And in the world of this 4 3 2 1, we expect this is part of the game. But finally, it is hard not to wonder why Auster feels the need for games, in the mature sweep of his prodigious talents. What can seem like sophomoric plotting; or a cringingly forced “joke” connection between the story’s opening and closing scenes, reads like the work of a novice writer. In the end, we can only assume that too is an intentional part of the “story” of the story. Still, exasperating and seductive, 4 3 2 1 is worth the walk.