Book review: 4321

4321 is immensely readable, at times compelling, sometimes saggy tale, says Noel Baker.

Paul Auster

Faber & Faber, €25

PAUL AUSTER might not have openly nominated his latest, sprawling work 4321 as his prime tilt at the great American novel, but such is its breadth, it’s hard not to feel that this doorstopper is his writing capstone.

It’s an immensely readable, at-times compelling blast through the lives of a young man spending his early decades in the maelstrom of the post-War years on east coast America, and a book-within-a-book that also serves as a love letter to language and the act of writing.

It is not straightforward. With Auster, it seldom is. 

You can certainly call the central character Ferguson, as the author does, but he also goes by his full name of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, and Archie, and more than that, there are four of them, a quartet of characters all with the same name and the same parents but whose lives, for one reason or another, diverge and expand in different directions.

Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947, and from there on, our four versions of the same person inhabit the tumult of mid-twentieth century America — the same, but not the same.

Auster is a writer known for incorporating structural complexity into his writing and 4321 is a project that arguably could only be carried off by someone with form in this area.

He is also an excellent prose stylist, if somewhat detached from his creations. At one point a young Ferguson falls out of a tree, resulting in his left leg in a cast, but this is just the springboard for an internal exposition which effectively lays out Auster’s thoughts behind the book.

“Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things would be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. 

"The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did not. What if his father was still a big-game hunter, for example? What if his mother was a famous movie actress and they all lived in Hollywood?”

Posing those latter questions shows a kind of genius because the various iterations of Ferguson’s parents are different, but often not blindingly so. None of them becomes an astronaut or a raging Communist or a Hollywood movie star. 

In the main they are rooted in the same part of America and pursue broadly similar careers and aims, and so the interactions between the different Fergusons and his parents are highlighted in the subtle and often unspoken language of mother-son/father-son dynamics — the oldest story in the world.

Auster is also allusive elsewhere, such as when the story turns to one of Ferguson’s own literary efforts, The Scarlet Notebook, and Archie refers to it as “the most challenging work he had ever attempted”, which sounds familiar — “a book within a book”.

There are births and deaths, and characters — sometimes extended family members, other times friends — who come and go and many who populate the different stories but in different roles, all foils of one sort or another to the scrutinising eye of Ferguson.

Sometimes Auster holds the action in beautiful suspension, such as the passages based around the simple last words uttered by one Stanley Ferguson to his son, or the description of Archie’s birth: “Thus Ferguson was born, and for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the earth.”

Yet despite the differences, the similarities between the various Fergusons are undeniable. They all love baseball, and adore writing. They seem preternaturally mature, precocious, and extremely, if not annoyingly, well-read. They all have the same political world view.

Cinephiles will appreciate the love of classic movies on show, from screwball comedies to European arthouse, while another theme is literature as enabler and protector: early on, his mother Rose Adler is given a comprehensive reading list by her sister, Mildred, featuring Dubliners, Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice, and at various points throughout the book, Ferguson consumes or is referred to a veritable library of serious writing, to such an extent at times that the titles could make for an academic reading list.

One question I couldn’t put out of my head was how, exactly, young Ferguson got around to doing all the socialising and squiring described in 4321 in between devouring so many classic works.

If that represents a flaw, it’s a relatively minor one as Auster is excellent at leading the young Fergusons through boyhood and into the anxiety-filled frenzy of the teenage years. 

There is a compulsive readability about these sections which limit the jolting sense you get at the end of every chapter, when just as you want to know what happens next to this particular Ferguson, one of the other versions appears instead.

There is no Sliding Doors moment in the narrative, no jumping-off point when the different characters go their different ways, and at times it can all be a little confusing, despite adroit reminders of which Ferguson you’re reading about. 

And when Auster shows in sometimes plaintive detail the fathoms of the relationship between the younger Archie and his mother, it is engrossing and poignant in equal measure.

So, what’s the problem? Well, any novel of almost 900 pages is bound to have its longueurs and 4321 is no different. To my eyes the book sagged significantly as Ferguson enters adulthood and there are some mundane if not unnecessary passages.

There is also the entirely subjective issue of the weight of words. Towards the end, Ferguson — ever the bookworm — refers to some of the greats of American literature, arguing the merits with a fellow writer of Flannery O’Conner over Bellow, Updike and others. 

It is invoking those names that throws up the inevitable comparison with other memorable characters like Updike’s Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe.

Ferguson finds himself observing the grand themes and seeing from afar and up close some of the big events of the fifties and sixties, including the Vietnam War and race relations, but Ferguson’s view is less memorable or visceral than, for example, the altogether more unpleasant but unforgettable rendering of race in Rabbit Redux.

And while this book is at times powerful, it doesn’t seem to have the emotional heft carried in Bascombe’s bumbling travails, or the simple but devastating lifespan of William Stoner as told in John William’s critically rediscovered Stoner.

But then maybe those comparisons are unfair, contrasting a few decades of a young man’s life (albeit by four) with the broad sweep of adulthood contained in those other novels.

As it weaves towards the end, a smaller number of Fergusons still throw up some surprises and the version of Archie we are left with is both real and unreal, writer and character. 

It swerves the reader away from any thoughts of the structure as a gimmick and instead trains us on the Fergusons who themselves often seem more observer than participant.

Taken on its own merits, 4321 is an engaging and sometimes brilliant look at identity, significant decades of the American century, and the bewildering randomness of life.


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