4 3 2 1 is a book that dominates your bookshelf. Built to replace any doorstopper you might have considered purchasing, it contains eight hundred and eighty-six pages and is the longest novel on the Man Booker shortlist. I must admit that, when it arrived in the post, I was quite intimidated.

The exterior appearance gives nothing away. Atop a dark background sits a large crowd in muted tones with bursts of red. I knew little of this book (and indeed of Paul Auster) before I started reading, only that this was a novel following one particular man, Archibald Ferguson, through various different versions of his life. But this book never felt like a trial. While reading, I carted it with me on various train journeys (and sacrificed valuable space), so compulsive were the pages of this tome.

The course of the novel is simple. After an opening chapter describing the circumstances of his grandparents and parents, we follow Archie from birth through “four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons [who are] made of the same genetic material… [and who] go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives”. [1] There are seven chapters for each life and the novel ends as Archie reaches adulthood and, in a perfect cycle, thinks up the idea for writing this book.

This plot is seemingly linear in its description – there are no flashbacks, very rare premonitions of the future and you could quite easily follow an individual Archie by skipping the intervening chapters. In doing so, however, you would miss out on the fragmentation of the narrative resulting from the four plots running concurrently. Auster plays with this and even toys with your investment in his characters. After a traumatic moment where Archie’s father, Stanley, is killed by a fire in his own store in a botched insurance scam, Auster follows with a chapter in which his family are thriving: “His father’s business was doing well”.[2] At the beginning, Auster’s technique proves confusing, but as the novel moves on the distinctive narratives matter less, with the pleasure in the novel found in seeing Archie’s sorrow contrasted with moments of true happiness.

In his appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist, Auster is a titan and long established name. Speaking to The Guardian earlier this year, Auster described the novel as “the biggest book of my life… I feel I’ve waited my whole life to write this book.” [3] As 4 3 2 1 is Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, it certainly feels like a book that is richly crafted. Other reviews talk about the diversity of Archie’s lives, but I found the symmetry of each life quite stunning and intricately detailed. His attraction to Amy Schneiderman, for example, is played broadly across all four lives, but even tiny details – such as a line of poetry that makes him laugh –appear in different narratives. Blake Morrison describes how “the Fergusons share more than divides them” [4] and that is true, but Auster’s success also is found in how he builds the landscape around Archie. He is surrounded by his parents and family and it is only through these familiar contexts that he can experiment with Archie’s diverse adventures.

Even Archie’s deaths are mirrored. Upon his first death, Auster ends the chapter by saying that “the gods were silent”.[5] After this moment, I had (unrealistically) hoped that his story would continue. Not because I imagined that he would magically recover, but because I wanted to see more from the family and friends who surrounded him. Auster, however, denies us any insight and takes on the role of the gods who say nothing. The only acknowledgement is a blank page between other chapters with the number that belonged to that Archie and, as the story moves on, you feel the loss even more pertinently as you see the other Archies’ grow and flourish. Later, when he dies again, Auster repeats his denial to the reader as “The gods looked down from their mountain and shrugged”.[6]

Such was my initial trepidation at the sheer size of the book, I assumed that I wouldn’t think much about the short introduction, but it is markedly different from the rest of the novel. It is the only chapter that all four Archie’s have in common, as Ferguson’s birth(s) is preceded by a short history of his grandparents and parents, Rose Adler and Stanley Ferguson. It is a description of his ancestors given in a factual manner but for the reader, is immediately reflected back through the eyes of a child. In doing this, Auster humanises Rose and Stanley’s relationship in a way that Archie cannot, from their tentative first date to her pregnancy. As a child, Archie does not have this context and his innocence is sealed perfectly so that the only things he need think about are vanilla ice creams and sourballs (and we are allowed to humour him).

The rate at which I consumed this story was far quicker than I had anticipated, for having read one version of Archie’s life, I knew what external influences would affect the “other” Archies: his deadbeat Uncles, Kennedy, and the Vietnam War. At points, it almost feels like a Forest Gump-type of film, in the way that Archie’s life intersects with moments in American history. The cleverness, however, in weaving these moments within different versions of the same man’s life is that we observe both their historical importance, but also how meaningless they are to the same man. At one moment, JFK’s assassination is completely lost in the weekend he spends with Amy and is only followed by the anticipation of when they will be able to be together again.

I reached the conclusion that it is the sheer number of pages, and the amount of depth of this novel, that makes 4 3 2 1 so compelling. Auster is not afraid to give weight (and lengthy pages) to the smallest details, while keeping his novel beautifully readable. The book often feels episodic – Auster includes an entire short story that Archie writes as a young teen called “Sole Mates”,[7] which follows the lives of a pair of shoes, Hank and Frank, and their owner. This short story itself is entertaining, but by seeing his work in its entirety you also feel the pride in Archie’s work and the bitter disappointment in his teacher’s response.

At no point in the novel did I feel lost. While reading, the narratives melt into each other, which at first feels unnerving but later is quite the making of the book. His previous sorrows do not matter, for my attention remained all too focussed on each moment, each Archie and where his ambitions would take him.

 

[1] Paul Auster, 4321, (Faber & Faber, 2017): Cover Jacket Description

[2] Paul Auster, 4321, (Faber & Faber, 2017): 83

[3] Paul Laity, “Paul Auster: I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I can’t live with myself”, The Guardian 11th October 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/20/paul-auster-4321-interview.

[4] Blake Morrison, “4321 by Paul Auster review – a man of many parts”, The Guardian 11th October 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/27/4321-by-paul-auster-review.

[5] Paul Auster, 4321, (Faber & Faber, 2017): 184

[6] Ibid.709

[7] Ibid. 250