I started to read Auster’s most recent novel last summer, 2017, but it got so boring I put it down thinking I’d pick it back up when the Booker Group had it scheduled. I’d got to about 25%, page 216 on Kindle – (No Audible because I couldn’t stand the sample sound of Auster’s voice.)
Okay fine – I picked it back up a few days ago and tried to read on thinking I might remember enough to squeak by. Nope – not quite. But I had also decided to keep notes this time because it is a very confusing book even if the writing is rather plain and straightforward. Ach!
4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
2016/ 867 pages
rating: 9.25 / contemporary fiction
(read and listened)
The confusing thing is that there are 4 guys named Ferguson (the protagonist) starting in 1.1 and there are 7 different timeframes in which different things happen to each of them – different lives, actually, from ages 6 or so to about age 24.
The thing is it’s a kind of memoir but with the idea that if Ferguson had chosen something else he would have had a different life – in some cases that works – in other cases it’s not about his choices, it’s about life on life’s terms – other people’s choices (like those of his uncles or parents or girlfriends) or a matter of timing – an accident.
The book goes from 1.1 to 1.2, to 1.3, to 1.4 and so on to 1.7 then starts with 2.1, and 2.2 and 2.3 – up to 4.7. This is each different Ferguson in one time frame and then a change of time frames. – The first number is the time frame, the second number is the version of Ferguson.
Reading this way, with a basic understanding of what was going on, I realized before long that I’d better keep some notes. I started over and kept notes by section and chapter – the way it is in the book.
It’s a reasonably good book if you can stay focused but Auster’s writing is full of lists and 2 page sentences and although it scans nicely – it gets boring unless you get interested in some aspect of Ferguson’s life – there is lots of information about sports and the Vietnam war for instance, with the themes of pre-adult life and love and loss and so on – the usual things you could think of as literary themes, but nothing original there. It’s a coming-of-age story with an imaginative twist built into the structure.
Okay – so I started over and it was easy enough reading so I skimmed some keeping notes about important things. I kept notes in my own order – see above – so I could put each Ferguson back together after I’d finished. (This is NOT a criticism of the book – Auster’s structure is perfect. I was just wanted to understand each Ferguson on his own and where the versions differed and branched. (And this isn’t a spoiler because the reader gets it before 10% of the book – page 85 or so.)
So after I re-sorted the scramble, I started feeling like a needed a spreadsheet so I could see not only what happened to the different Ferguson’s individually, but so I could look at the years in which these things happened – what all happened in 1967 in the various incarnations of our hero?
I didn’t do that -although it would have been interesting because issues of the day, from the end of WWII (p 16) to the Attica riots in 1971 (p 855, for one) are a huge element in the plots – how political events can affect our lives big time. The Vietnam War is paramount but there was the Columbia Student Uprising which is quite important in the book.
Auster’s novel is memoir-ish, it’s a fictionalized autobiography in that he was there in the places and at the times he writes about in many cases (maybe most). He grew up in New Jersey where he was classmates with Mark Rudd (Columbia SDS leader) and he likely wanted to be a writer from early on. He was probably a sports enthusiast, too.
Basically it’s about a young boy named Archie Ferguson and his family over a period of about 15 years (1955 – 1970). But instead of following one character named Archie Ferguson during all that time, the reader is treated to other possibilities
This reader thinks that if things happen to a character that’s how it should be for the book – – I guess Auster doesn’t think that way because after Fergusson’s father dies tragically in one chapter, he’s alive and well in the next. (Huh?) This is NOT a spoiler – just different Fergusons.
In the stories, although he grows up, Ferguson’s basic characteristics don’t change – he’s Jewish and he likes to read and then to write, he’s athletic and loves sports, and he loves his mother.
“… how different these three books are. They’re all written in their own way, and they’re all very good, which means that there isn’t just one way to write a good book. Last year, Mr. Dempsey kept telling us there was a right way and a wrong way—remember? Maybe with math and science there are, but not with books. You do them in your own way, and if your way is a good way, you can write a good book.” p.179