Paul Auster’s new novel 4 3 2 1 is just fantastic – inventive and thought-provoking, just deeply pleasurable. It’s another big book – 866 pages – but there is a lightness of touch that makes it a surprisingly quick read. I had an advance copy to read, so I just started it, without reading any blurbs or reviews, and was deep into the 3rd chapter before I realised what was going on, what Auster was doing: Here are the four different lives of Archie Ferguson, born to Rose and Stanley, all significantly different yet eerily similar, as their protagonist reacts (or doesn’t) to important world events and domestic everyday life.
There are four versions of each chapter: 1.1; 1.2, 1.3 etc. I read the book right through, quite liking the confusion of having to remember who had died in which life, when so-and-so got kissed – and who by, and the growing sense of how tiny, tiny, tiny moments can change the course of a life, how exploring one path over another, or wanting to follow both, creates different histories, different people.
I did think I’d read it again, in about a year, and read all the first Ferguson chapters, 1.1, 2.1, 3.1… then maybe all the third Ferguson chapters, 1.3, 2.3, 3.3, 4.3… and see what that was like. I wonder if it will pack the same emotional punch as reading them in leapfrog format: you become more attached to some Fergusons than others and when devastating things happen to one and then immediately you are reading about the ‘same’ person carrying on with their life, it slightly tilts your world.
One of the charms of the book – beyond the enjoyably elegant and seemingly effortless writing – is that Auster resists getting all meta and too clever and having any characters in any of the lives be at all aware of the other lives. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s wonderful reincarnation tale, Ursula also lives multiple lives but it is always her living them, and she becomes aware of the process and what she can do with it – which works in this book.
Auster’s four Fergusons resolutely live their own lives – or perhaps forms of Auster’s too, many of the incidents he describes are similar to those in his own life, some of which he has explored in earlier works. Perhaps he is playing as ‘what if?’, considering what paths another Auster may have taken or overlooked.