The negotiation between the negative postmodern view of life and the despairing yet humanitarian approach to existence is tricky terrain that Paul Auster has successfully perambulated in many of his works. 4321, his latest book — which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize — is a highly ambitious coming-of-age story that runs over three times the length of most of his other works. At the heart of it, 4321 is Auster’s most moving work to date as it appeals directly to the reader’s emotions as opposed to addressing issues through deconstructive narrative techniques.
The clash between the existential quest for individual freedom and destiny is the overarching theme of 4321. The book starts with the genealogical history of the main character Ferguson’s clan, from his Russian great-grandfather’s arrival in New York and struggles as an uneducated Jew in a strange land, his marriage and the many children he has, to the marriage of Ferguson’s own parents and their financial struggles. Auster also goes into a detailed history of Ferguson’s mother’s family. By the end of the first chapter, Auster has the reader completely invested in the story — however, under the false assumption that 4321 is going to be a somewhat traditional read adhering to the norms of chronological narrative and social-realist fiction.
This false sense of comfort is shattered in the third chapter as we realise here that we’re reading a different version of the second chapter, because when Ferguson is born, the story diverges into four parallel narratives with him as the protagonist. The main characters, including family, some friends and love interest Amy remain the same for all four Fergusons. Moreover, despite the contrasting circumstances in his four alternative lives, Ferguson is a good sportsman and loves writing. All four Fergusons are condemned from the beginning to more or less the same destiny, but they all have the freedom to make their own lives as they live.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Paul Auster’s latest novel is his magnum opus, but is a dense and cerebral book that will appeal to only the most dedicated readers
However, it soon becomes difficult to distinguish between the four Fergusons and remember which one broke his arm, which one lost his father and so forth. Therefore, by the end of the first 100 pages it is quite likely the reader will lose their anchor in reality — much like the protagonist(s).
It’s rather interesting that even though Auster could have chosen completely different lives for his protagonist(s), he settled for subtle differences. It could be argued that the main reason for this confounding technique is to portray four versions of Ferguson in confrontation with their existential freedom.
Even as a child Ferguson is tormented by the irrational world around him. When he breaks his arm, “What bothered him most about falling out of the tree was that it needn’t have happened. Ferguson could accept pain and suffering when he felt they were necessary, but unnecessary pain violated the principles of good sense, which made it both stupid and intolerable.” In a parallel life, another young Ferguson loses his faith in God when confronted with the absurdity of existence: “The world wasn’t real anymore. Everything in it was a fraudulent copy of what it should have been, and everything that happened in it shouldn’t have been happening ... but an unnatural world was much bigger than a real world, and there was more than enough room in it to be yourself and not yourself at the same time.”
In 4321 time moves both forward and inward. Life is made up of “a series of concentric circles” with politics forming the outermost circle, whereas individual circumstances comprise the innermost. The world is “a big, churning mess, with millions of different things happening at the same time” and all Ferguson wants is “a chance to create his own mess of a world” through writing. From early childhood the possibility of imagining a different world brings much joy to him: “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same.”
It won’t be hard for those familiar with Auster’s previous works to notice autobiographical echoes in 4321. Like Ferguson, Auster was born to immigrant parents, saw a young friend die when he was young, and idealises writing. When Ferguson describes his ideal writing style, one cannot help but wonder if it’s Auster telling us why he chose to write 4321: “To combine the strange with the familiar: that was what Ferguson aspired to, to observe the world as closely as the most dedicated realist and yet to create a way of seeing the world through a different, slightly distorting lens, for reading books that dwelled only on the familiar inevitably taught you things you already knew, and reading books that dwelled only on the strange taught you things you didn’t need to know.”
Besides his love for writing, Ferguson finds solace in his various romantic/sexual exploits. The fundamental quest for love, he believes, is of a spiritual nature: “the dream of an enduring connection, a reciprocal love between compatible souls, souls endowed with bodies, of course.”
If it were not for the sheer length and weight (the hardcover weighs 1.3kg!) of the book, I would say Auster has finally written the masterpiece we’ve all been waiting for. But after Ferguson goes to college, the story is weighed down by the overload of rehashing of political events of the time and the parade of the many lovers that follow Amy. Perhaps Auster should have taken the advice of his protagonist when he says, “No doubt there was something admirable about attacking life with such wit and witticism and irreverence, but it could also become wearisome at times.”
Inadequacy of communication, despair at the human condition, search for love, morality and deep-set nihilism form the crux of 4321. It would require a certain kind of dedicated reader to go through this dense, cerebral book, but the gratification to be found in a story so masterfully crafted is sufficient to attract those readers.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer
By Paul Auster
Henry Holt and Co., US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 24th, 2017