Paul Auster has made a career out of thwarting expectations about what books can do. 4 3 2 1 is no exception. Each section presents one of four possible directions that Archibald Ferguson’s life could take. The protagonist (referred to as Ferguson by the author but Archie by the other characters) is always born to the same parents in the same area of New Jersey. His mother is always a photographer, his father a purveyor of cheap home furnishings. Their businesses take various directions in different threads, as do their relationships with their families and with one another. In one thread Ferguson’s parents stay together, while in two more they divorce and in another his father dies. Other friends and relatives also recur in different guises and roles in different threads.
Given that each of the four threads could be a fully-conceived novel in its own right, the reader has quite a lot to keep track of here, though her work is lessened slightly when one of the Archies dies early in the novel and again, later, when another does. The fact that the threads contain so much similarity makes it a challenge to keep one straight from the next. Despite the big differences—Columbia vs. Princeton vs. Paris, girl as lover vs. girl as step-sister vs. girl as cousin—Ferguson himself remains remarkably consistent. He is always an existential-minded boy, curious about God, skeptical of money’s ability to provide happiness, proud of his working artist mother, longing for support from his non-artist father, sympathetic to liberal causes but never a revolutionary himself. Most importantly, he is always a writer. While the novel explores many of Auster’s usual themes—American history, the role of coincidence in our lives, money, the father/son relationship—ultimately this is a book about writing. Its fundamental question is “How does the life affect the writing?”
Like all of his Fergusons, Paul Auster was born in New Jersey to Jewish parents. Like Ferguson-1 he attended Columbia University, and like Ferguson-3 he lived in France and began his career by publishing a memoir. Like the Fergusons, Auster is clearly attracted to strong, intelligent women; he was once the husband of Lydia Davis, and has been married to Siri Hustvedt since 1981. Like F-1 he was at Columbia in 1968 during the student protests of that year. Like F-4 he writes experimental fiction. How does knowing any of this help us? Because 4 3 2 1 is about writing, writers, and how writers’ lives affect their work, in this case the author’s biography affords us one more insight as to how the work gets done. Auster’s own life functions as a kind of fifth thread.
What these threads add up to seems to be this: none of the supposedly big parts of what we might think makes a life—where you live, where you go to school, who you sleep with—actually matters all that much. These details affect the purpose of Ferguson’s life—creating written art—only mildly, as a matter of genre. And while the content and style of his writing is different across the threads (Auster provides many examples of it), and his process fluctuates as well (another thing we hear a great deal about), what doesn’t change is Ferguson’s fixation and incredible concentration on his work. Whether it’s speculative fiction, translations of French poetry, memoir, or criticism (all of which Auster has also published), Ferguson is a nose-to-the-grindstone type of writer, and this facet of his character does not change.
In other words, 4 3 2 1 seems to argue for the existence of a fixed self or soul, and for some degree of fate at work in our lives. If you are a writer you will always be a writer. If you are a photographer you will find a way to take pictures. If you are meant to be born in New Jersey in the 1950s, then there is not a world in which you are born in Ecuador in 2017 instead. Other things seem to be destined as well. Although he’s a college-aged male at the height of the Vietnam War, Ferguson always avoids the draft. In every thread he receives some kind of help that allows him to concentrate on his writing without having to find a full-time job. In general Ferguson’s is an existence of comfort and privilege. His life, it would seem, could not have gone “any” way, but only any way after certain fates were in place.
4 3 2 1, at 800+ pages, is a long and challenging read. Set in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, 4 3 2 1 feels researched to a degree that can sometimes pull the narrative down where it should be propping it up. But reading about the Columbia student uprising or race riots in Newark, from the point of view of someone we have by then grown up with, has a layered effect. Whereas Emma Cline’s recent hit The Girls offers readers only the haziest glimpse into one cranny of the ’60s (the Manson Family), 4 3 2 1 couples expansiveness with the kind of nitty gritty detail that takes time and effort to wade through. The act of reading can begin to feel a bit like going to the dentist—you know you should do it but it doesn’t always seem worth the trouble. And when you finally get to the end (if you do get there) the conclusion might strike some as didactic. I would argue, though, that the effort is rewarded, and the moralizing is both warranted and ultimately satisfying.
4 3 2 1 is a writer’s book, and much of the subject matter will likely only hit home with readers of that particular persuasion. On the other hand, the historical bent of the book is worthwhile for everyone. At once comforting, unsettling, and instructive given the political climate in this country at the moment, 4 3 2 1, as I said, makes the case for some degree of fate. If we accept this argument, then the conclusion to be drawn is that we are all “meant” to be wherever we are, right now. We were destined, apparently, to be living at a time in history that has seen not only the rise of the United States’ first black president, but also of its first Twitter-troll president.
The question 4 3 2 1 asks is not why we are here now but what to do since we are. Auster-as-Ferguson provides an answer. While Ferguson is consistently angry about the Vietnam War and sympathetic to revolutionary causes, in no life is he a political activist. At all times he is a writer. And though some might see this inwardness as detached or escapist, the book presents it as altruistic. For books had often
turned [Ferguson] inside out and altered who he was, had blasted apart his assumptions about the world and thrust him onto a new ground where everything in the world suddenly looked different—and would remain different for the rest of time, for as long as he himself went on living in time and occupied space in the world.
This effect, perhaps needless to say, is a profoundly positive one. So when Ferguson asks himself “What to do or not to do when the world was on fire and you didn’t have the equipment to put out the flames, when the fire was in you as much as it was around you, and no matter what you did or didn’t do, your actions would change nothing?” his answer—“Stick to the plan by writing the book. […] Write the book by replacing the real fire with an imaginary fire and hope the effort would add up to something more than nothing”—seems not only logical but magnanimous as well.
Metafiction announces itself as fiction. Realism attempts to create a world that mimics the “real” one. In 4 3 2 1 Auster has combined these two genres to show what fiction can do in the real world, and to offer a defense of art in a time of political turmoil. If you were not born a brick thrower, Auster seems to be saying, then don’t waste time trying to become one. Whatever natural impulse and skill is within you is what you should use to serve and improve the world. Let us all be like Ferguson, and pour ourselves into the skills we each posses.