Full disclosure: Paul Auster is among my handful of all-time favorite writers. When I was a junior in college, one evening, I snagged off of the bookshelf of my roommate a little paperback called The New York Trilogy. Standing in the kitchen of our apartment, with the book lying open on the counter, I tore through the first half of the book. I finished it the next evening, in the same manner. (Incidentally, for months thereafter, this remained my preferred mode of reading: standing, with the book open upon the countertop.)
The New York Trilogy, for those of you who haven’t read it, is technically a collection of three small novels (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room) that were originally published separately in 1985 and 1986. Together, they comprise a stellar, concise, weird, ephemeral, and oddly riveting examination of how a person can exist in extremes of psychological strain, both self-inflicted and not. The three books are often referred to as examples of detective novels, or meta-detective novels, or other such detective-related types of novels, and they are, but with a particularly creepy, introverted kind of bent. At any rate, if you’ve not read any Auster, The New York Trilogy is an excellent place to start. After I finished reading it all those years ago, I recommended the book to my dear friend NN, and he tore through it, and thus began the longest sustained co-reading effort of my life. He and I began reading everything Auster we could get our hands on, and we discussed them as we went, and we were consistently wowed, floored, dumbstruck, and left longing to become writers ourselves.
So, late last year, when I read that, after several years, Auster was finally releasing a new novel, we both began counting the days. And on January 31 of this year, I purchased a copy, and was surprised to see in my hands a nearly 900-page tome full of dense multiple-pages-long paragraphs. This was unlike any Auster I’d read in the past. Much of what I’d always loved about his writing was his fairly strict economy of language, his simple, apparently effortless prose that never seems to flaunt or strut its stuff, but that sure-as-shit always gets the job done, and generally within two or three hundred pages. But this thing was massive. And what was with this title? 4 3 2 1?
Nevertheless, I dug in, and it took me a little more than a month, and I’ll say this: it was both a slog and a delight. To be sure, Auster took liberties here, clearly not worrying about writing too much, just going and going, but this is not a criticism. I took great pleasure in the fact that he allowed his characters space, seriously vast swaths of space, in which they roam and grow and suffer, and in which we readers really get to know them. But at the same time, it is really long, and sentences are paragraphs long, and paragraphs are pages long, and it’s dense stuff, not for the faint of readerly heart, so to speak.
But allow me to say a bit about the structure of this novel, and this will be a minor spoiler. The first chapter of the book is the simple story of an immigrant arriving at Ellis Island and taking (being given?) the name of Ferguson, his having a child named Stanley, Stanley’s eventual marriage to a woman named Rose, and the birth of their first child, who is named Archie Ferguson. It ends right there, at Archie’s birth. The next chapter is labelled “1.1”; in it, our protagonist, Archie, is quite young, and most of the drama surrounds his father’s role as the owner of a home appliances store in New Jersey. The next chapter, 1.2, covers much of the same time period, and his father’s store suffers a tragedy as it burns down one night while the family is home alseep. The next, 1.3, also involves young Archie and his father’s travails as a small business owner, but here the store burns down amid circumstances involving his uncle’s debt to a mobster and a deliberate burning down of the store in an attempt at insurance fraud, and in which his father dies in the fire. Here’s when I realized that the novel was not going to be a long, chronological life story of our protagonist, but was some kind of experimental simultaneous telling of parallel stories. In chapter 1.4, there unfolds a fourth version of Archie’s childhood, similar to the others but distinct. Then we move on to 2.1, in which we meet the same Archie as in 1.1, but now he’s a young adolescent. And so on and so forth. The four different narratives, and the lives of the four Archie Fergusons, unfold from there, but start to slowly diverge based on the subtle differences laid out in the first set of four chapters.
The effect of this unorthodox, nonlinear narrative structure is, at first, to be sure, burdensome for the reader. As I am a reader of a particular nitpicky bent, I felt obligated to make detailed notes of each Ferguson’s story, so that, each time I returned to it, I could gain my bearings by checking back in with my notes from the previous section of that particular Ferguson’s story. This helped, but I still found myself frequently confusing the four Fergusons, mistakenly remembering some detail from what I thought was the past of the particular Ferguson whose story I was reading only to discover that that detail was in fact from the past of a different Ferguson. Facing this difficulty, one might even be inclined to read the novel out of order, and I certainly did feel so inclined, but of course, I couldn’t bring myself to do that; Auster had, after all, written it the way he had written it, and I had to trust that he had his reasons, cumbersome as the reading was.
Nonetheless, as I worked my way through the book, this effect began to wane, and I began, bit by bit, to experience the magic of what Auster was doing here. The whole book, all four narratives taken together, began to blossom into this thing that felt like it had no boundaries. It created a sense of freedom. When something bad happened to Ferguson, I took solace that it hadn’t happened to the other Fergusons, and that soon I’d return to a world in which that bad thing hadn’t happened. And when something good happened to Ferguson, I felt happiness at his fortune, but was immediately reminded that this good fortune was only true in one of four worlds. This structure makes every plot point, and every one of its effects on the reader, fundamentally transient and ephemeral. It’s both maddening and beautiful. It’s a book in which everything that happens doesn’t necessarily happen, and everything that doesn’t happen, in the end, just might have happened.
And within all that, there’s just a ton of good old-fashioned excellent writing. It’s nearly 900 pages, as I’ve said, and there are plenty of subsections of the novel that would, by themselves, be perfectly good, well-rounded, fulsome novels unto themselves.
I’ll cut myself off here, after a few final comments: 4 3 2 1 is a remarkable example of an old-school period piece. Auster spends so much time allowing his readers to sink their teeth into the various overlapping Ferguson tales in the 1950s and 1960s, with the overarching historical events of these decades colliding with the four narratives in different ways, that it really creates in the mind of the reader a kind of lovely, nostalgic feel. I felt reminded of my youthful love of reading.
Finally, a word about the title: As Auster himself explained during a talk at which I was in attendance last month in San Francisco, his original working title for the novel was Ferguson, but during the writing, the Black Lives Matter movement erupted onto the national scene after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and Auster was compelled to come up with a new title. Hence, 4 3 2 1.
Read it. Read everything written by Paul Auster.