What one life could have been
FICTION Auster’s magnum opus gives him room to indulge, explore his obsessions
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