Reviews — From the February 2017 issue

Life Choices

Paul Auster’s multitudes

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At nearly nine hundred pages, 4 3 2 1 tests this proposition at greater length than ever before. Auster’s new novel imagines four versions of the life of Archie Ferguson, a Jewish boy growing up after World War II in the working-class boroughs of New Jersey (his goyish surname is the result of an ancestor’s mix-up at Ellis Island), where his father, Stanley, runs an appliance and furniture store and his mother, Rose, works at a portrait-photography studio. After a prologue about their marriage and Archie’s birth, the novel splices its four parallel story lines, following its hero to early manhood.

The book uses the Catch — Willie Mays’s legendary over-the-shoulder grab of Vic Wertz’s fly ball in the 1954 World Series — to propel Ferguson’s lives along their forking paths. In part 1, Lew, one of Stanley’s brothers, makes a killing betting on Mays’s Giants, which tempts another brother to make his own fortune by robbing the furniture store’s warehouse. Stanley forfeits the insurance money by refusing to prosecute his brother, which consigns him and Rose to a lifetime of difficult but self-respecting economic struggle and instills in Ferguson a pragmatic professional ambition that complements his natural artistic bent.

In parts 2 and 3, Lew bets against the Giants, falls into debt with gangsters, and puts in motion a plan to burn down the family store for the insurance. In part 2, Stanley goes along with the arson but becomes so ashamed of his collusion that he shutters the business. In part 3, he tries to stop the scheme and is killed in the fire, and Ferguson and his mother move to Manhattan, where she remarries and he grows up to be more solitary, vulnerable, and prone to anguish than his other incarnations.

Part 4 skirts the problems with Ferguson’s feckless uncles altogether. Stanley buys out their shares of the store, which allows him to grow rich, join a country club, and move his family to the swank outer suburbs. His rise in station, however, makes him vain and tightfisted, planting the seeds for a divorce from Rose and a falling-out with his disaffected son. This Ferguson is marked by a defiant rejection of his father’s materialism.

It’s hard not to notice that the Stanley of part 4 has a lot in common with the father depicted in Auster’s memoirs. The new novel may sound like a high-concept, formally pyrotechnic book, yet Auster’s approach to his material is hardly out of the ordinary — he draws on his own life experience, tweaking details and outcomes as it suits him. The pleasures 4 3 2 1 offers are fairly traditional as well. As a time capsule of New York and New Jersey in the Fifties and Sixties, it is consistently engrossing. The backdrops of Ferguson’s early lives are filled with sports events and news items, TV shows and pinup girls and product logos. (In one thread, his first stirrings of sexuality are kindled by the drawing of the topless goddess Psyche on the White Rock seltzer bottles.) There are fond evocations of the Thalia, the beloved Upper West Side art house, and of the Horn and Hardart automats; of New Jersey’s poky Erie Lackawanna commuter train, with its “antiquated wicker seating,” and of shabby-chic Gauloise cigarettes, “overstrong, brown-tobacco fat boys in the pale blue packages with no cellophane around them.” Ferguson’s branching lives take him to Columbia University, Princeton, and Paris, and these settings, too, are documented to an encyclopedic degree. The bygone hazing ritual for incoming Columbia freshmen? Wearing powder-blue beanies during Orientation Week. The cost of airmailing a package from France to London in 1966? More than ninety francs, or around twenty dollars.

Auster’s late writing has shown something of a mania for inventories — his recent non-fiction works Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013) are free-associative catalogues of bodily sensations and mental images, respectively — and in 4 3 2 1 at times this tendency metastasizes into unwieldy historical checklists. (“The wall going up in Berlin, Ernest Hemingway blasting a bullet through his skull in the mountains of Idaho, mobs of white racists attacking the Freedom Riders as they traveled on their buses through the South.”) But more often the surplus description is born of generosity and exuberance. Auster has radically recast his prose, stretching the clipped, oracular style of his early books into unbuttoned run-on sentences like this one, about the weekend trips Ferguson number 4 makes with his stepsister to see the city’s museums:

The most memorable experience they shared together didn’t happen in a museum but in the more confined space of a gallery, the Pierre Matisse Gallery in the Fuller Building on East Fifty-seventh Street, where they saw an exhibition of recent sculptures, paintings, and drawings by Alberto Giacometti, and so pulled in were they by those mysterious, tactile, lonely works that they stayed for two hours, and when the rooms began to empty out, Pierre Matisse himself (Henri Matisse’s son!) noticed the two young people in his gallery and walked over to them, all smiles and good humor, happy to see that two new converts had been made that afternoon, and much to Ferguson’s surprise, he stood there and talked to them for the next fifteen minutes, telling them stories about Giacometti and his studio in Paris, about his own transplantation to America in 1924 and the founding of his gallery in 1931, about the tough years of the war when so many European artists were destitute, great artists like Miró and so many others, and how they wouldn’t have survived without help from their friends in America, and then, on an impulse, Pierre Matisse led them to a back room of the gallery, an office with desks and typewriters and bookcases, and one by one he took down from the shelves of those bookcases a dozen or so catalogues from past exhibitions by Giacometti, Miró, Chagall, Balthus, and Dubuffet and handed them to the two astonished teenagers, saying, You two children are the future, and maybe these will help with your education.

If Auster finds freedom in verbal profusion, he also finds it in conceptual restraint. It’s impressive how rarely he indulges in his usual brand of gimmickry, given that 4 3 2 1’s premise would seem worrisomely ripe for it. Perhaps he’s realized that the mainstream by now has co-opted most of the novelties of postmodernism. The idea that time can be cleaved in two is the stuff of romantic comedies like Sliding Doors. A character who continuously repeats his existence gives the impetus to Kate Atkinson’s thrilling (if incoherent) page-turner Life After Life. Ian McEwan and Haruki Murakami have forged book-club-friendly careers by playing cute games with narrative artifice.

In 4 3 2 1, Auster goes easy on the metaphysics. The resonances between his four Fergusons rarely feel overdetermined; they are glancing, circumstantial. To be sure, there are some gently ironic instances when the Fergusons muse about the role of chance or the variable nature of identity — “One of the odd things about being himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him.” But such thoughts are natural to an intellectually rambunctious teenager, and Auster lays no more emphasis on them than he does on Ferguson’s flights of fancy about baseball, classical music, and sex.

This marks a significant change from The New York Trilogy, in which the connections are forged by cryptic coincidences. Volume 1, for instance, introduces a mysterious character with the initials H.D.; in volume 2, a detective comes upon a copy of Walden published by a company that shares the name of the man he is investigating; in volume 3, the narrator mentions a friend named Dennis Walden. You can parse these clues as much as you like, but because they don’t correspond to anything except other inscrutable symbols, the only meaning they enforce is their fundamental non-meaning. The point is to screw with you. “Nothing was real,” Auster warns, “except chance.”

Here’s how Thoreau appears in 4 3 2 1, from the point of view of Ferguson number 4, an aspiring novelist:

the thrill of reading such prose was never knowing how far Thoreau would leap from one sentence to the next — sometimes it was only a matter of inches, sometimes of several feet or yards, sometimes of whole country miles — and the destabilizing effect of those irregular distances taught Ferguson how to think about his own efforts in a new way, for what Thoreau did was to combine two opposing and mutually exclusive impulses in every paragraph he wrote, what Ferguson began to call the impulse to control and the impulse to take risks. That was the secret, he felt. All control would lead to an airless, suffocating result. All risk would lead to chaos and incomprehensibility. But put the two together, and maybe you’d be on to something.

Auster’s tilt away from the stifling control of locked-room mysteries toward the hail-mary risks of interwoven shaggy-dog coming-of-age stories is rejuvenating. He returns to many of his old hobbyhorses in 4 3 2 1, but here they are restored from the level of abstract metaphor to their rightful place in the real world. He plays around with pen names, not because he has a message to convey about the instability of labels and signifiers but because Ferguson is embarrassed to go by the comic-book name of Archie. (He chooses A. I. Ferguson in one version and Isaac, his middle name, in another.) Puns are plentiful, but they’re jokes Ferguson tells when he’s goofing around with friends, not indicators of recondite linguistic connections. And notebooks, rather than being some kind of sacred regalia, are just notebooks.

There’s even a clever adaptation of Auster’s recurring locked room. While at Columbia, Ferguson number 1 is trapped in his dormitory’s elevator during a thirteen-hour citywide power outage. It’s a revealing scene, in which Ferguson takes stock of his life, the Vietnam War, and his ambitions as a student journalist — all while trying not to piss himself. It also produces an eerie feeling of disassociation:

So dark in there, so disconnected from everything, so outside the world or what Ferguson had always imagined to be the world that it was slowly becoming possible to ask himself if he was still inside his own body.

Grounded in the real, his captivity regains its metaphoric possibilities.

The sensation of possibility is the most satisfying feature of 4 3 2 1. Of the many quotations that the four Fergusons single out from their extensive reading, one from John Cage’s Silence captures the novel best: “The world is teeming: anything can happen.” Because Auster takes each of Ferguson’s lives seriously as a vessel for experience and meaning, they build on one another rather than canceling one another out. The effect is almost cubist in its multidimensionality — that of a single, exceptionally variegated life displayed in the round.

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is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “First-Person Shooters,” appeared in the August 2015 issue.

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