4 3 2 1 is best described with the narrator’s words used to categorize a novel within the plot–“a parable about human destiny and the endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life.” That person in this epic novel is Archibald Ferguson, only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey. To begin, the reader is given a satisfying foundation in Ferguson’s heritage (Chapter 1.0), narrated by an unseen party whom my brain assumed to be the Paul Auster himself. After this groundwork is laid, this reader began to realize that 4 3 2 1 is unlike most books I have read.
I dove into this book not knowing much about it. I knew it told a life story in four parts, but mostly I was afraid I wouldn’t finish it by our next book club meeting (over 800 pages). After chapter 1.1, I started to feel confused. Hadn’t I read this already in the last chapter? Then I realized what was happening and grinned. Sneaky Mr. Auster was telling the same approximate time period again, but had tweaked some aspects. Chapters 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 would unfold as the elsewheres in the multiverse where Ferguson’s life would be different in some small or large way at this point in his life story. The word “multiverse” is never mentioned, but this is how I organized the plot in my mind. This novel is the story of the early years of a man’s life, 4 different ways. This book gives voice to the question “What if…?”
Readers journey with Ferguson as he experiences his early years with family and friends, but not always with the same faces. We see him navigate his school years, sometimes in private school, sometimes public school; this time in New York City, another time in New Jersey. We feel the first pangs of love along with him; sometimes with girls, sometimes with boys. We see him in a crisis of faith. Ferguson attends university (not always the same one) with the backdrop of the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, which are richly described in each iteration.
I never felt myself liking one Ferguson over another, though I sometimes hurt more for one than another. I didn’t root for one to win. I felt all along that I was simply in the middle of something beautiful, and I feel this is due to Auster’s exemplary writing. I often highlighted phrases just for the sheer loveliness of them, for example “mélange of sorrow” and “bestower of misbegotten names.” He makes writing look easy. I was continually amazed at Auster’s ability to drop a bomb into the plot and then calmly circle back to give detail as to how that particular event unfolded. There is a consistent feeling of spiraling throughout this book–circling through events and circling through the iterations of the big story. This book is long, often confusing, but never boring. I am surprised that the editor gave Auster such license for wordiness, but it works.
Each chapter is not simply a retelling with changes, but a complete new story with a consistent center. Ferguson is Ferguson in each telling. His heart is always there to be recognized, despite circumstances and fate. Some details remain in each telling, such as writing, sports, photography and France, but they are woven into the tapestry differently each time. Each time Ferguson remains, though. He is so beautifully developed and is so easy to love. I encourage you to meet him, as well.
This is the only book by Paul Auster which I have read, but I hope to read more by him. I simply enjoyed how this book made me feel. I was never reading to furiously see what would happen next, but to savor the unfolding of it all. It allowed me new eyes for the world around me, simply through the writing itself, not necessarily due to what happened to the characters.
To end, I will share two tiny quotes which summarize my feelings about this novel.
“…for walking with Federman was above all an exercise in the art of paying attention, and paying attention, Ferguson discovered, was the first step in learning how to be alive.”
“Sitting pretty, Ferguson’s mother said. Yes, that was it, sitting pretty, and what a grand and beautiful world it was if you didn’t stop to look at it too closely.”