This will be as concise a review as I can manage because I would much rather you have all the time you need – and trust me, you will need a lot of time – so that you can read 4 3 2 1 as soon as possible.
My friends will know that I have made no bones about being a huge fan of Paul Auster, so I’ll do my best to reign in my bias, but, seriously, this is an American epic of metaphysical proportions. 4 3 2 1 is about Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born on March 3rd 1947. 4 3 2 1 is also about Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born on March 3rd 1947. In fact, 4 3 2 1 is about four men called Archibald Isaac Ferguson, each born on March 3rd 1947. They all have the same grandparents and parents but as soon as they are born, their lives split with the full force of contingency. They go forward in their lives, experiencing the kaleidoscopic tessellations of parents, step-parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, life spans, with certain events and relationships occurring in all worlds, whilst the historical events of the world we know – assassinations, wars, protests – remain very much the same.
A decade ago, Auster’s lean but dense Travels in the Scriptorium was published, following an ageing man named Mr Blank as he came into contact with characters from the entire span of Auster’s work. There’s an element of this unorthodox autobiography present in 4 3 2 1 and perhaps it’s as close to Auster writing purely about himself as we will get. But writing about himself necessarily means writing about his lineage, the wider community of 20th century immigrants, and the almighty influence of the world around him. As much as this is a novel about choice, it is also about the impact of what we can’t control on our development, reflected in Auster’s focusing the majority of the book on each Archie’s childhood. It’s also very funny and very sexy, an attitude which befits an eight hundred plus page novel wherein none of the protagonists are written beyond their early twenties. This is a hefty tome about youth in the recent past. Morose youth, pensive youth, but youth nonetheless.
It has taken me four months to read this book. Within those four months the power shift in the world has made things look incredibly bleak. What struck me in reading 4 3 2 1 is how the world has been steeped in conflict but this didn’t leave me feeling destitute. Auster’s grand American tapestry of immigrants, queer people, people of colour, reminded me that this is how America, as much as it might like to think that it hasn’t, has always been. It took fighting for and the fight isn’t over yet.
Paul Auster is now president of American PEN and I can think of few people better placed to counteract the current administration. Happy Birthday, Paul. Thanks for the book.
4 3 2 1 is published by Faber & Faber on 31st January 2017.