My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on the 3rd of March 1947 in New Jersey. Only Ferguson is four different boys and these four boys are all the same. Archie’s life takes four different paths at the moment he draws his first breath, as the exploration of the road not taken becomes an epic story of possibilities, destiny and chance revolving around one boy who lives, loves, learns and exists in four different lives. How would your life be now if some moments happened differently?
Many critics in popular literary journals and newspapers I found online begin their reviews of 4 3 2 1 by comparing it to Paul Auster’s previous novels. Now, 4 3 2 1 is my first experience with Auster’s writing, but the point most of these reviews are trying to make is that the one noteworthy difference between his latest novel and Auster’s previous work is the size. Consequently, I am led to believe that critics have been doubtful about Paul Auster’s ability to masterfully tackle an 860 page story given that his famous New York trilogy is in its entirety shorter than his most recent publication. As expected, a book of this size does not come without its shortcomings. I may not be a professional writer but I very well remember the one rule of thumb my teachers and professors have instilled in me through the school years up until now as I’m working through my Master thesis, and which comes down to one word: parsimony. When you want to say something that can be said with three words instead of ten opt for the simpler choice. Paul Auster has written 4 3 2 1 with anything but parsimony in his mind.
With paragraphs at times the length of 1.5 pages and sentences that as a rule avoid full stops until they become a necessity, Paul Auster writes four intimate stories sprinkled with autobiographical elements that become the life of Archie Ferguson. As in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer winning novel, Middlesex, the story of Archie begins two generations back. His paternal grandfather is a Russian Jew that makes it to America speaking poor English and instructed by a friend to call himself Rockefeller when asked by the officials so as to sound more American. When the times comes though for grandpa Reznikov to give his American name he has forgotten what it was – “Ikh hob fargessen” – and so he comes to be known from that point on as Ichabod Ferguson. It is thus by chance that our boy Archie will be a Ferguson – and not a Rockefeller – and Auster will insist on calling his character by his last name throughout the book, ironically honoring the nature of happenstance and randomness.
The world wasn’t real anymore. Everything in it was a fraudulent copy of what it should have been, and everything that happened in it shouldn’t have been happening. For a long time afterward, Ferguson lived under the spell of this illusion, sleepwalking through his days and struggling to fall asleep at night, sick of a world he had stopped believing in, doubting everything that presented itself to his eyes.
Archie’s storylines begin to diverge slowly as all lines do when they originate from the same junction. Chapter 1.1 begins with Ferguson as a little boy going through the Freudian Oedipus complex with his mother and continues on a similar vein in chapter 1.2 only with small but significant differences which the unsuspecting reader will notice and find strange. How is Aunt Mildred not married now when we just read that she got married, for example? It soon becomes clear, as the lines are drawn longer angling further from each other that the book follows Ferguson 1 then Ferguson 2 on to Ferguson 3 and finally to Ferguson 4 throughout childhood to enter back with Ferguson 1 in adolescence and so on. The early years of Ferguson’s life were captivating. It matters not that the reader goes through 3-5 years of a person’s life only to finish a mammoth chapter and go back and relive these 3-5 years with the same exact person. Paul Auster keeps us engaged by flipping around monumental events in Ferguson’s life that later have a greater impact, as events do, in his existence. The early year’s of Archie Ferguson are a pleasure to read for those who enjoyed the voice of Theo in Donna Tartt’s most recent novel, The Goldfinch. It is inevitable not to care about a boy so mature for his age, so honest and smart, as you walk with him through the years among disasters, disappointments, first lovers and biggest accomplishments.
It was interesting to me that, although I had never even heard of Paul Auster before January when 4 3 2 1 came out, I was confirmed in finding his novel occasionally autobiographical. Auster worked on his master novel for 7 years wanting to play with the possibilities of what would happen if…? From Ferguson’s birth date (he is born on the 3rd of March 1947 and Paul Auster was born on the 3rd of February of the same year) to Ferguson’s passion for translating French poems (as did Paul Auster) and from Archie’s memoir of his mother ( Paul Auster wrote a memoir of his father) to the sudden death of one of his friends from an aneurism (Paul Auster witnessed the sudden death of a boy by a lightning strike), Auster allows himself a chance to explore random events that stigmatised his life through a character that sometimes becomes him. Despite the infinite number of inevitably unexplored possibilities, Auster’s Archie remains, at his core, a person of literature and writing, a person that will associate with one Amy Schneiderman – although in different ways each time, and a person fascinated by French art and culture. I am not sure why a novel based on the premise that chance affects one’s life does not dare to explore outside of these set boundaries. In fact, the story becomes repetitive, not in the sense of boring or dull, but in that ,reading a given chapter, one cannot readily recognise which Ferguson they are reading from until Auster is forced to offer some helpful reminders and cues to recalibrate the reader’s mind.
… and while all people were bound together by the common space they shared, their journeys through time were all different, which meant that each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else.
Going into 4 3 2 1, I was expecting to follow all four Ferguson’s to their death, meaning – in my mind – to their old age. I was then surprised and honestly sad to see one of the Ferguson’s leave the story quite early in the book. I was even more surprised to see, as the ending of the book drew nearer, that Ferguson would not be followed into his adult years. And by the time I realised that, the book had become a somewhat tiring even tedious experience. For instance, the author has thrown in a whole paragraph – and not a small one at that – filled with nothing but actors’ names. Becoming a little tired of Ferguson’s life is frankly unavoidable, as he falls in bed again and again with different ladies, – and in one life men- struggles with his writing career – be it journalism or writing a book – and witnesses American history that affects his life along with many others. Archie is no more special than any other regular guy – if you are looking for a more thrilling epic story, certainly Donna Tartt’s Theo is a safer bet – but Paul Auster’s prose, despite its moments of tediousness and repetition, mostly enjoys a steady, easy flow so that it is not difficult to follow and become engaged with it. The focus of the novel is strongly reduced to the narration so that the dialogue is sparse, given the freedom to exist outside quotation marks as part of the storytelling.
Normal. What did normal mean, Ferguson asked himself , and why wasn’t it normal for him to feel the way he did about wanting to kiss and make love to other boys, the sex of one-sex was just as normal and natural as the sex of two-sex sex, maybe even more normal and more natural because a cock was something boys understood better than girls, and therefore it was easier to know what the other person wanted without having to guess, without having to play the courtship and seduction games that could make the sex of two-sex sex confounding, and why did a person have to choose between one or the other, why block out one-half of the humanity in the name of normal or natural when the truth was that everyone was Both, and people and society and the laws and religions of people in different societies were just too afraid to admit it.
It took a month for me to finish this novel that I initially bought because of its size – I tend to enjoy big books – but somewhere along the way I found myself aching for some of Joe Abercrombie’s escapism and “extraordinariness” that comes with the SFF genre. Archie Ferguson had come to be a little too mundane. Paul Auster is a seasoned author and so I cannot congratulate him for pulling off such a huge undertaking. I can only criticise him for not making it into a masterpiece. American epics are difficult to do, but there are certainly some out there – two mentioned in this review – that are a little bit better than the intimate and enjoyable tale of Archibald Isaac Ferguson.
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