What one life could have been

FIC­TION Auster’s mag­num opus gives him room to in­dulge, ex­plore his ob­ses­sions

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - STEPHEN FINUCAN Stephen Finucan is a nov­el­ist and short story writer. He lives in Toronto. Spe­cial to the Star

In a re­cent in­ter­view with Pub­lish­ers Weekly magazine, ac­claimed Amer­i­can author Paul Auster said that he “doesn’t think there’s a hu­man be­ing alive who hasn’t spec­u­lated, what if ? What if my fa­ther hadn’t been killed in that ac­ci­dent? What if I had hit a home run in­stead of strik­ing out? It’s very easy,” he went on, “to start play­ing at these al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties for your­self and it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing game to play.”

“4321,” Auster’s 17th novel and his first since 2010s “Sun­set Park,” is the ul­ti­mate “What If ?” game.

On March 3, 1947, at Beth Is­rael Hos­pi­tal in Ne­wark, N.J., Stan­ley Fer­gu­son and his wife, Rose Adler, wel­come into the world their first and only child, Archibald Isaac Fer­gu­son.

It is an un­ex­cep­tional birth sur­rounded by fam­ily and for the briefest of mo­ments, Archie is “the youngest hu­man be­ing on the face of the earth.”

But things do not re­main un­ex­cep­tional for long.

Hap­pen­stance has al­ways played a sig­nif­i­cant role in Auster’s fic­tion.

“Chance is part of real­ity,” he wrote in “The Art of Hunger,” his 1992 col­lec­tion of es­says and in­ter­views, “we are con­tin­u­ally shaped by the forces of co­in­ci­dence, the un­ex­pected oc­curs with al­most numb­ing reg­u­lar­ity in our lives.”

With “4321,” Auster plays out the string of chance, won­der­ing, as young Archie him­self won­ders: “how things could be dif­fer­ent even though he was the same ... The same boy with dif­fer­ent par­ents. The same boy with the same par­ents who didn’t do the same things they did now ... any­thing was pos­si­ble, and just be­cause things hap­pened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t hap­pen in an­other. Ev­ery­thing could be dif­fer­ent.”

And so Auster fol­lows four pos­si­ble paths of Archie’s life, each con­tin­gent upon un­ex­pected oc­cur­rences. Chief among these unan­tic­i­pated events is the demise in Novem­ber 1953 of 3 Broth­ers Home World, Stan­ley Fer­gu­son’s fur­ni­ture busi­ness.

The how and why of that demise — by theft, ac­ci­den­tal fire, ar­son or ac­qui­si­tion — pro­pels the four Archies on their sin­gu­lar jour­neys, lead­ing one to Paris, one to Prince­ton, one to the tu­mul­tuous cam­pus of Columbia Univer­sity dur­ing the 1968 stu­dent oc­cu­pa­tion and one to an early and tragic end.

Auster is noth­ing if not a clever writer and “4321” is a won­der­fully clever book. The Aus­te­rian hall­marks of in­ter­tex­tu­al­ity and metafic­tion are on show through­out.

For those who have read his work, fa­mil­iar names will pop up: Daniel Quinn from “The City of Glass,” Adam Walker from “In­vis­i­ble,” Peter Aaron from “Leviathan,” Marco Fogg and David Zim­mer from “Moon Palace” and “The Book of Il­lu­sions.”

And there are other post­mod­ern tricks on dis­play, as when the third Archie sets out to write his first book, the mid­dle sec­tion of which he con­cludes with a de­scrip­tion taken al­most ver­ba­tim from ear­lier in the novel it­self.

But “4321” is much more than a piece of lit­er­ary games­man­ship — though Auster’s de­trac­tors have of­ten ac­cused him of be­ing ca­pa­ble of lit­tle more.

This is, with­out doubt, Auster’s mag­num opus.

Weigh­ing in at al­most 900 pages, it dwarfs any of his other works and gives him the room to fully in­dulge his fic­tional ob­ses­sions: the ques­tion of iden­tity, the writ­ing life, ab­sent fa­thers, the moral obli­ga­tions of both art and the artist, as well as — and per­haps most im­por­tantly, given the present cir­cum­stances — the be­trayal of Amer­ica by its politi­cians, not only Democrats and Repub­li­cans, but also those rad­i­cal groups that arose out of the tur­bu­lence of the 1960s, only to fall prey to the same hypocrisies and ego­cen­tric­i­ties of their main­stream foes.

And yet, for all its grav­i­tas, “4321” it­self springs from a joke, a “joke about the Jews from Poland and Rus­sia who had boarded ships and come to Amer­ica,” the punch­line of which Auster de­liv­ers with such aplomb as to re­shape the reader’s en­tire per­cep­tion of the novel. It is one of those rare in­stances in read­ing, when, for the briefest mo­ment, ev­ery­thing seems to stop and re­order it­self, a mo­ment of true rev­e­la­tion, when the world — at least the world of the novel — makes sense, and one can’t help but ad­mit they are in the pres­ence of ge­nius.



4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster, Henry Holt and Com­pany, 880 pages, $42

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