4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 Paul AusterShortlisted 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.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

  1. I entered into this novel blind. I had no knowledge of the big premise. As I got into it I howled to myself “What the hell is going on?” Luckily Auster’s writing flows so smoothly I kept going – by midway I was digging the concept and enjoying myself – by the end I was sad to see the book end! Not something you can often say about a 800+ page novel. I agree with your summation. Some of the historical stuff could have been trimmed but overall I thought it was a pretty special book.

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  2. I needed a whole two pages in my notebook to keep track of the characters and plot. But agree it was worth it and would love to reread!

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  3. I was wondering about this book as I almost requested it on NetGalley. It does sound like quite an original structure.

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  4. Ethan S.

    I really like the idea of reading these different versions of a character! The length my keep me away for now, but I definitely have this one on my TBR list.

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  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book. I loved it, particularly Archie 3. Auster has said although it shares events from his personal chronology, it’s not autobiographical, even if it feels that way.

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    • Yes, Rebecca mentioned that you are a fan of Auster. I didn’t know much about him before but having now read his Wikipedia bio, it’s not surprising that so many have interpreted 4 3 2 1 as autobiographical!

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  6. This sounds really interesting. I didn’t get on with The Versions of Us because I didn’t feel that it really made use of its concept, but I’m always up for a good ‘sliding doors’ novel – my current favourite is Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World.

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  7. Interesting comment. I read this as part of the Booker longlist marathon, fairly early on I was mildly exasperated by the structure and took to reading each “life” through to its end, more as if it were four books. I am sure that this was not the author’s intention. I have been gifted with a very good recollection of read works, so I know that I will not be revisiting this hefty tome again, indeed it is even now weighing down someone else’s shelf.

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