This review deserves four titles

My thoughts PRIOR to reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

1. I’m a little surprised this is on the Booker shortlist. Not because I know anything about it or the other long- and shortlisters, but because I’m still not used to the Booker being open to Americans.

2. In my experience Auster writes two general kinds of books, ones that are totally straightforward, readable narratives (e.g., Brooklyn Follies, Sunset Park), and ones that twist things a bit on their edge (e.g., Man in the Dark, Travels in the Scriptorium).

3. I’ve not yet been able to get into his early work The New York Trilogy.

4. Auster is married to Siri Hustvedt.

My thoughts AFTER reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4. This is a brilliant, enjoyable, touching, epic, coming of age story.

4 3 2 1 takes a close look at one boy’s life told four different ways. All four Archie Fergusons start off with the same genetic material, but from there his life heads down four different paths. The first chapter headed ‘1.0’ outlines Archie’s lineage and introduces us to his parents and grand parents, his uncles and aunt, and even his mother’s employer–all of whom will weave in and out of all four of the Archie story arcs in ways that are both familiar and surprising. This first chapter ends with the birth of Archie and it gives the reader a hint of how Auster infuses Archie Ferguson’s story with a sense that in each human there is an inextricable connection between the mundane and the cosmic.

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.

What happens next is where the epic begins. Instead of tracing one family through multiple generations from beginning to end, Auster limits his epic to about a 25-year period focusing on how the life of one boy could have gone four different ways. So chapter 1.1 begins the tale of one version of Archie’s life. Chapter 1.2 is the tale of Archie’s life continuing on a similar but different trajectory. Same for Chapters 1.3 and 1.4. Then Chapter 2.1 goes back to continue the tale of Archie number 1, Chapter 2.2 continues Archie number 2 and so on. Normally this kind of disjointedness can really trip me up and make me run from the room, but I was quickly caught up in the all the Archies and decided that trying to keep it all straight would be worth the effort.

And, although it wasn’t really all that hard to follow, I gave in to my burning desire to map it all out on a spreadsheet. Some characteristics that were easiest to distinguish had to do with his parents’ occupations, his Aunt Mildred’s academic posts (Stanford, Berkeley, Smith, U of Chicago, Brooklyn College, etc.), his uncles various forms of malfeasance, and eventually the Archies’ choices of college. As much as I loved my spreadsheet, after about four of the seven cycles, I no longer felt the need to keep it updated. (There is a part of me, however, that would really like to go back and re-read it keeping track of every single character and what happens to them in each of the four versions.)

3. It’s hard not to love all the Archies.

There is much that differentiates each of the four Archies and each version would quite easily stand on its own. But there were common elements to each of the stories that make it clear that each of the four Archies are four different versions of the same person rather than four different people. These similarities also imply Auster’s belief in the innateness of certain fundamental elements of who we are, what we like and dislike.  And Archie is a guy that I like: he likes to read and write and has a passion for music and film. Each of the Archies take us on a ride of discovery that had me Googling book titles, films, pieces of music, artists, and other cultural figures and movements. He also likes sports, but as a non-sports lover who usually hates reading about sports, Auster never focuses too much on this and it generally enhances rather than delays the story. In essence Archie is a sponge for knowledge and experience. He is the kind of kid I wish I could have.

There is plenty of plot in 4 3 2 1 but Auster definitely takes some time and pages to luxuriate in intellectual development of each of the Archies. For someone who just wants it all to plug along to the next thing this could be annoying I suppose, but I found it immensely enjoyable on two levels. The first being that they were fascinating on their face value: scraps of verse, essays, short stories, book outlines, jokes, newspaper articles, word games, films watched, books read, etc. The second being amazement that Auster has so much of this stuff bouncing around his head that he had to split a character into four to justify using it all. I enjoyed every minute of it. In particular I was taken with Archie number 4’s early attempt at short fiction which Auster spends about 11 pages describing. It’s called Sole Mates and it’s about Hank and Frank, who just happen to be a pair of shoes in addition to being best friends. I found it charming and funny and rather than being a blip in the overall tale, I felt it drew me even closer to Archie number 4.

2. It’s like a really enjoyable history lesson.

Like William Boyd’s Any Human Heart and Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Auster’s 4 3 2 1 takes the reader on a ride through history. So many things I knew about in passing, pieces of stuff I kind of remember from high school and college, things I have forgotten, details I didn’t know…Vietnam, the civil rights movement, race riots, student takeovers of college campuses, and any number of other political and historical moments. Auster brings life to many moments that for most of us are not much more than a sentence or two in our school history books. And he does it in a way that is never pedantic or intrusive. One fully understands that it was all a part of the existence and consciousness of the characters. When you add in all of the high, low, and pop culture that Auster weaves into the story it is like a undergraduate seminar in American Studies.

1. This is a memorable book that packs an emotional wallop.

There is so much I want to tell you about this book, but I don’t want to spoil one single surprise. Let me just say that there are surprises. And they sneak up on you in terms of timing and content. Having four Archies gives Auster the opportunity to really (to use a word Auster/Archie would use) fuck the story arc up in ways that a single Archie wouldn’t have been able to convey.

There is so much joy in this book. Despite all the trauma and tragedy there is so much flippin’ joy. I found it life affirming to follow all of the Archies as they discovered passions, and friends, and sex, and freedom, and life in general. Some would (and have) reduced it to nostalgia, but for me, whose undergraduate days ended almost 30 years ago, it is less about nostalgia and more of an inspiration to be the kind of person that can forever be taking on new and exciting information and making new friends. Man I would like to inject some of that into my life.

And then there are the moments of pure upheaval and tragedy. Just as Archie is different in each of the four stories and meets a different fate in each of them, so too do the rest of the supporting characters. The fates of his parents and grandparents and uncles and aunt–times four!–all pack a punch and often have a profound impact on our hero. There is much that left me sad about the characters, about the arc of history, about the plight of the human race, and about this stinking bullshit mess we are in now that is both similar, better, and worse than it was 40 years ago.

Since finishing 4 3 2 1, I have really been missing the Archies. Part of it is a function of the length of the book–you just end up spending a lot of time with these characters. But more than that, it is the affection I have for each of these Archies that makes me want to spend more time with them. It’s not like I think we would necessarily get along in real life, there were times where  I wanted to bop one or two of them on the head, but they are fascinating, charming, complex individuals and I want to know more.

7 thoughts on “This review deserves four titles

  1. miletestgmailcom October 7, 2017 / 7:13 pm

    Bravo 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏 great review Thomas
    Now i want to read this tomorrow.
    Congrats Leonie


  2. lakesidemusing October 7, 2017 / 8:57 pm

    Love this review! I’ve been interested, but hesitant… you’ve convinced me to give 4321 a chance.


  3. Liz Dexter October 8, 2017 / 10:03 am

    This was a fascinating read – my husband listened to the audio book a few months ago and really wasn’t taken by it, although he’s really liked other Auster stuff in the past. It was good to read your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. booksandwinegums October 8, 2017 / 3:28 pm

    I really enjoyed this review. I’ve written about this one too – I think Auster’s novel ambitious and there’s much to love, but I think it’s up against better novels for the MBP.


  5. lauratfrey October 8, 2017 / 6:47 pm

    great review! I’m still only on 4.1, but I agree with everything… except I didn’t like the short story 😁 I found a copy of Auster’s Winter Journal one the clearance rack last night and picked it up. It’s an autobiographical collection of snippets and vignettes, written in 2011, so I’m curious to see how much of himself is in Archie.


  6. Charlotte Johnson-St Vier October 13, 2017 / 3:29 pm

    I love it when I get book recommendations from within other books. I’ve read Auster before in a literature class, but might need to return to him some day.


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