Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, ‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster consists of four different versions of the life of Archibald Issac Ferguson, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1947 (the same year as Auster). Descended from Russian-Jewish immigrants, Archie is the only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson and during his early childhood, random events change the path of his life splitting into four different trajectories – in one version his parents divorce, in another they stay together, in another Stanley dies, and so on. The parallel structure means that each of the seven parts is rewound three times before moving on to the next stage in Archie’s life covering his early childhood through to his coming-of-age in the late 1960s.
You may already be aware that ‘4 3 2 1’ is very long – 866 pages in total which took me just under two weeks to read. I haven’t read any Auster before and his latest novel is partly autobiographical and seems to be a departure from his typically more concise work. However, I was intrigued by the multi-layered concept of exploring alternative lives of the same characters – a “what if” premise I have enjoyed in other novels such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. Whereas three strands in Barnett’s novel was manageable, keeping track of four Archies initially seemed more challenging, particularly as the cast of characters is fairly large. However, the four strands are not equal in length which made it slightly easier to follow than I was expecting. Despite the varying outcomes and events which take place, the four versions of Archie Ferguson and his friends and family did sort of merge into one after a while, although I felt differing amounts of empathy for certain characters depending on what was happening to them. This might sound problematic, but it quickly became apparent that seeing the bigger picture is more rewarding (and a lot less taxing) for the reader than keeping tabs on the minutiae of who does what in each chapter. What Auster achieves here is not so much character development, but rather character layering, raising interesting questions regarding how we are shaped by our experiences.
The historical detail is extremely impressive, offering a truly panoramic view of 1950s and 1960s ‘Mad Men’ era America amid so much social and political change. It has to be said that the passages covering the 1968 student protests and some of the in-depth analysis of baseball games, music and literature drag a bit while some sections feel like lengthy lists of newsworthy events that were happening at the time and could easily have been reduced. Overall though, the immersive setting and the execution of the ambitious plotting is very well done.
The ending gives an intriguing explanation as to why the book is structured the way it is. It’s highly unlikely that I would revisit ‘4 3 2 1’ any time soon, but if I ever did, I would certainly read it in a different light with this revelation in mind. Doorstopper novels are often daunting but I’m glad I made the time to read this one, and the fact that I’m even contemplating what a reread could potentially offer is testament to Auster’s skill here. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.