Thoughts on Paul Auster’s 4321

“Auster’s first novel in seven years,” the cover of 4321 proudly states, though for me this is the first Paul Auster I’ve read since 2003’s Oracle Night. I tried but could not finish The Brooklyn Follies, Man in the Dark, or Invisible, and didn’t even pick up the other two books he published in the last 14 years. They did not contain that “Auster magic,” had nothing new to tell me; in fact, they felt stale and contrived and I decided that either Auster had lost his touch or I had lost my taste for his work, which meant I was afraid to reread my earlier favorites of his – The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, The Book of Illusions – because I didn’t want to spoil my memory of them if it turned out the fault was really mine, not Auster’s.

Then along came 4321, a book so big and ambitious I had to give it a shot. And lo and behold, I finished the darn thing, and I loved it. Almost without reserve. An 800-page behemoth telling four overlapping versions of the same life? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Auster makes it work. During the two months it took me to read this book, I kept worrying I’d stop caring or get bored or simply become overwhelmed and give up, but my attention never waned. (Part of that may be the fact that once I get past a certain point with big books, I become determined to finish them; the progress I make becomes as pleasing to me as the story itself; whereas I have no problem casting aside shorter books.)

Could this book have been shorter? Sure. Could there have been a little less Vietnam and other political talk in the last 200 pages? Sure, but politics tend to bore me anyway, so again this is my fault, not Auster’s.

Why did I like this book so much? The main character is not a particularly exciting individual, and what happens to him, retold in four different versions, also isn’t ground-shaking. Archie Ferguson grows up in New York; falls in and out of love; falls in and out of touch with his parents depending on which version of his life you’re reading; has lots of sex; and grows up to be a writer/poet/journalist. The reasons I stuck with the book were:

  1. Auster can be a great storyteller and here he’s in top form, spinning yarns that are funny, heartbreaking, or downright bizarre
  2. The book consists of long sinuous sentences that, strung together into long paragraphs and long pages, have a hypnotic effect
  3. I listened to part of the book on audio, read by Auster himself in his pleasant baritone
  4. I’m a writer myself, so the book was an interesting experiment in style and structure that I wanted to see if Auster could sustain till the end (he did). This is a book about how stories are told and how lives essentially are the stories we make of them. As such, it should be particularly appealing to people who are interested in the way stories are told

It might seem as if 4321 argues against the central conceit in Auster’s oeuvre, namely that our lives are ruled by chance. After all, how likely is it that many of the same things can happen to four different versions of Ferguson if the universe is pure chaos? But instead, Auster posits that all four versions of Ferguson would have lived the exact same life if chance had not intervened, tragically in some cases (people who live in some versions die in others). So in a way, this is The Music of Chance times four.

My one quibble with this book, despite its extraordinary length, is that it ends when Ferguson is in his late twenties. After some 800 pages, he’s still only at the beginning of his life, which means the book lacks that satisfyingly emotional gut-punch you get at the end of, say, The World According to Garp, where you feel you’ve really gone on a journey with a character and you’ve seen him rise and ultimately fade into darkness. Like Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale, 4321 ends when our hero is at the beginning of his literary career, and you want there to be a sequel. I hope Auster gets around to writing one.