08 February 2017

Book Review: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

I first acquired a taste for Paul Auster while I was at university and a good friend of mine, who has as big a crush on New York as I do, couldn't believe I hadn't read The New York Trilogy. Over the years, I've worked my way through most of his back catalogue and was excited to read about his newest novel, the 'Sliding-Doors-Squared' 4 3 2 1. If his other novels can be described as tapas or light meals, 4 3 2 1 is more of an epic banquet, spanning almost 900 pages of the life of Archie Ferguson — or, rather, the possible lives.

During the introductory chapters, Auster describes the arrival of Ferguson's grandfather in the United States in the early 20th century (explaining how the Russian Jew acquired the name Ferguson) and explains how Ferguson's parents met. The novel then diverges, with each chapter being split into four sections, each offering up a vignette of one possible incarnation of the life of Ferguson. There are often similarities between the different stories — some characters appear in multiple versions, but play different roles, suggesting that they are 'destined' to be part of his life no matter what twists and turns fate may have in mind. These similarities make it quite hard to differentiate among the different Fergusons, particularly during the early chapters, although I got into the swing of things eventually.

I was also expecting that the stories would span many decades of Ferguson's life, offering a rich portrait of middle-class American life in the latter half of the 20th century, but instead they focus on his childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, covering the 1940s through to the 1960s. And this is, I believe part of the problem with 4 3 2 1, which I admired but which I found slow-going at times. 866 pages is a long time to devote to one portion of a person's life — and a fairly ordinary person too — especially when the overlaps and recurring themes between the different strands felt a little repetitive at times. There were definitely sub-chapters that lost my interest — not many of them, for sure, and not always in the same strand — and led me to read more quickly, pushing on to the next version which I found more engaging.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy 4 3 2 1 — Auster is a wonderful writer with a great eye for character and you cannot fault his latest work for ambition, imagination or historical detail — but I think I might have enjoyed it more had it been half the length and with half the strands (2 1 isn't quite such a catchy title, for sure). Novels and films depicting two possible versions of a person's life are common, though, whereas four is a much more impressive achievement; this hubris, ultimately, is Auster's Achilles heel here. I enjoyed spending time in the company of some of the characters in some of the strands, but others felt overwritten. I also suspect that I will get a lot more out of 4 3 2 1 with a second read, so I am certainly going to return to it at a later date; I will probably revisit some of his earlier works first though.

Disclaimer: 4 3 2 1 was published by Faber & Faber on 31 January. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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