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4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
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it was ok
bookshelves: 21st-century, booker, contemporary-american-fiction, new-york

I was excited about this to begin with but it soon began to feel like a vehicle without an engine that Auster was pushing ever uphill.

If we live only a small part of our inner life externally, what happens to the rest? Unfortunately Auster doesn’t address this intriguing question in any kind of stimulating way though you’d think a novel about a character living four parallel lives would.
How much of fate comes from within and how much comes from without? Unfortunately Auster doesn’t address this intriguing question in any kind of stimulating way either though you’d think a novel about a character living four parallel lives would.

I’ve got a lot of time for Paul Auster but I’m afraid I found this a self-indulgent and ultimately pointless novel. I wasn’t a great fan of Life after Life but Atkinson’s novel on a similar theme is much more fluid and interesting structurally than this. It’s also immeasurably more outlandishly playful. Atkinson’s heroine becomes a downtrodden bullied wife in one version; assassinates Hitler in another. Auster’s hero, by contrast, goes to Princeton in one version; Colombia in another. Maybe that’s truer to life but it hardly makes for gripping dramatic tension. And yet Auster is quite happy to employ melodrama as a deciding factor in creating crossroad moments – a murdered father, a car crash resulting in the loss of thumb and first finger - except his melodrama leads to banal distinctions. Atkinson, like the film Sliding Doors, identified the crossroad moments when a fate might change course; Auster doesn’t – he uses accidents rather than choices to define the fate of his character. Things happen off-screen and differently from one life to another for no apparent reason: an uncle makes a bizarre decision, the father makes completely different life choices for no apparent reason with far reaching repercussions in one life which he doesn’t make in another. In this regard, Ferguson is like a puppet operated by his male family members.

Auster’s hero is perhaps the biggest problem. I was never convinced he was sufficiently intriguing as a character for a 200 pg novel, let alone an almost 900 pg one. The sixties should be fascinating but Ferguson is like some throwback to the 1950s. Though this novel is waterlogged with the minutiae of 60s news items and memorabilia there’s no mention of LSD, of rock music, of hippy culture. Ferguson loves baseball, basketball, Bach and beer. He’s not a child of his time. Therefore the decade begins to become irrelevant and it’s a bit baffling why so much energy is spent in trying to recreate it. I assumed at least one version would send him to Vietnam or prison to provide some real dramatic contrast. Nope. Instead the cliffhanger is whether Ferguson will become a novelist or a translator of poetry. Gripping stuff! At the heart of this novel is a colossal failure of imagination on Auster’s part – he can’t imagine himself as anything but a writer. That said, I agree with Auster and not with Atkinson – that if we had four cracks at life they wouldn’t be significantly different – but for that very reason this all becomes a very pointless and long winded exercise.

The other problem is you also get three or four lives in a computer game and after a while this began to become as predictable and repetitive as a computer game. Whatever happens isn’t sufficiently consequential to sustain interest. There’s not much at stake when you get four rolls of the dice. So what if he dies in one version? It’s actually a relief because it was hard work trying to remember the thin distinctions between one life and another. At least, we now had one less nuanced account of his love life and literary aspirations to retain in memory. (This novel would be a good test for evaluating how prone you might be to dementia.) And to be honest I didn’t understand why things turned out differently in the various versions. Because his father dies he becomes gay? That seemed to me a crass piece of reasoning. In one version his cousin Amy finds him irresistible; in another she’s sexually indifferent. I never had a clue why. My feeling was Auster didn’t either. That his main motivation for writing this was to lavishly indulge in nostalgia for his lost youth. Then why not just write a memoir? To add insult to injury he deploys an utterly lame post-modernist trick at the end, trying to cajole us into believing the whole thing has been the height of cleverness.

After this, Jane Smiley’s dreadful Some Luck and Murakami’s rambling dead end 1Q84 I’m now going to think very hard before reading any novel over 700 pages.
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Reading Progress

February 11, 2017 – Shelved
February 11, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
March 14, 2017 – Started Reading
April 6, 2017 – Finished Reading
August 1, 2017 – Shelved as: 21st-century
August 1, 2017 – Shelved as: booker
August 1, 2017 – Shelved as: contemporary-american-fiction
August 1, 2017 – Shelved as: new-york

Comments Showing 1-50 of 73 (73 new)


message 1: by Steven (new)

Steven Godin Any early thoughts Violet?


Violet wells I’ve read about 100 pages and I’m already struggling a bit, Steven. I’m finding it self-indulgent. Auster’s no doubt reached an age where he feels a lot of affection for his youth and at times the “gimmick” of this novel seems like an excuse to endlessly reminisce in stocktaking detail about his younger years. Also, the trouble with a narrative of alternate lives is you’re entering into computer game territory. It doesn’t matter if you lose a life cos you’ve got others to play with. This means there isn’t much at stake in each narrative. Also, following Kate Atkinson’s example, he’s opting for melodrama rather than subtlety in the contrasts between one version of his life and another.


message 3: by Steven (new)

Steven Godin Violet wrote: "I’ve read about 100 pages and I’m already struggling a bit, Steven. I’m finding it self-indulgent. Auster’s no doubt reached an age where he feels a lot of affection for his youth and at times the ..."

Thanks, I love most of his back catalogue, but my intuition tells me this may be too melodramatic, something I generally detest.


Elyse Walters Hi Violet - just following your thoughts! Remember- I 'listened' to the audiobook -during our city's most damaging rain storm in history.
I'll be back tomorrow hear what else you have the say.


Violet wells I'm not getting this at all, Elyse! For my money Auster should have just written a memoir if he wanted to revisit his youth in so much detail. I'm not sure I find Fergurson sufficiently interesting for one narrative let alone four. Also, I don’t buy the basic premise of this – that more of our fate comes from without than within. I think the big event in our lives in terms of opening up radically different possible fates is who we marry and have children with. The people we live with change us, not remote events on TV or the escapades of uncles and school friends. I’m also finding the endless cataloguing of political current affairs tedious – though not as tedious as the basketball and baseball stuff! It’s very well written but it’s just not working for me as a novel.


Elyse Walters Gotcha ya, Violet! I enjoyed Paul's voice --I felt Ferguson --and his family were in the same room at times --(or I could just really see the scenes) --I thought his mother was 'the best' -- It was long -- but it held my interest by 'audiobook'.
but one thing about the fate ---
If you lost parent --or a physical part of your body -- you don't think that shapes you? --See--I'm very happy I married Paul --and much has changed and shaped my life in our marriage --'but' I'm pretty damn clear --early childhood shaped me more --major loss. If you 'have' experience major loss (without) -- at a young age --I'm not so sure you would feel the same way. --maybe you would -
but yes --people we live with change us --
and I agree the political affairs was a little 'sleepy' -- but I was interested in all the relationship dialogue.


Violet wells Yep, see all your points. I suppose what I feel is there's a lot of melodrama of fact - losing a parent, losing a body part, dying - but not much difference of effect. And some of the differences I don’t get. Why he’s sex crazed in one version and a diligent scholar in another for example. Or why Amy finds him irresistible in one version and feels little sexual attraction for him in another. It’s like lots of the differences are groundless. I’m waiting for some hallelujah moment when it all falls brilliantly into place but I’m not confident it’s going to arrive. I’m assuming one version of him will have to go to Viet-Nam and that’s the kind of event that really would dramatically affect the entire course of a life. I’m hoping this is when the notion of alternate lives takes on a real depth.


message 8: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Michels I anxiously wait for your review on this one.


Violet wells I fear it's not going to be terribly approving, Brian!


message 10: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Michels Violet wrote: "I fear it's not going to be terribly approving, Brian!"

But Violet, your approving and disapproving reviews are equally impressive.


Violet wells I certainly enjoy writing critical reviews more than faintly approving ones!


message 12: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian Michels That's what shines through in your reviews. Of course, with merit, and barely a sadistic trace if any at all.


message 13: by Steven (new)

Steven Godin Finally decided this is a no go, thanks, Violet.


message 14: by Brian (last edited Apr 06, 2017 09:11PM) (new) - added it

Brian Michels My favorite line in your review, "I’m now going to think very hard before reading any novel over 700 pages." Words to live by.


message 15: by Dianne (new) - added it

Dianne Excellent, thoughtful review Violet. I was waffling on this one; I think I'll pass in favor of another Auster instead.


message 16: by Cheri (new)

Cheri Excellent review, Violet. I have been debating this one on and off until now. Hopefully the next few will make up for this!


message 17: by Katie (new) - added it

Katie Quinn I just read City of Glass for a class in college and absolutely loved it, so I was hoping to read this one next. However, the length of this novel is intimidating so between that and this review I might have to pass. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful review! Do you happen to have a favorite novel by Paul Auster that you can recommend?


message 18: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye well Violet, stopped reading when the spoilers got to thick to rush out and get the damn book already. So I guess that you and then the conversation with Elyse has titilalated me rather than put me off.
I am too fond of the man to think he would succumb to the grand old man syndome


Violet wells Katie wrote: "I just read City of Glass for a class in college and absolutely loved it, so I was hoping to read this one next. However, the length of this novel is intimidating so between that and this review I ..."

My favourite is The New York Trilogy, Katie which I loved. I suspect this novel might be almost as long as all his other books combined.


Violet wells Dianne wrote: "Excellent, thoughtful review Violet. I was waffling on this one; I think I'll pass in favor of another Auster instead."

I've loved all the other books of his I've read, Diane.


Violet wells Steven wrote: "Finally decided this is a no go, thanks, Violet."

Just my opinion though, Steven!


Violet wells Cheri wrote: "Excellent review, Violet. I have been debating this one on and off until now. Hopefully the next few will make up for this!"

Thanks Cheri. My main objection is the length of it. A big investment of time involved. There are good things about it and it might be more compelling if you're familiar with the New York setting and interested in the politics of 1960s America.


Violet wells Magdelanye wrote: "well Violet, stopped reading when the spoilers got to thick to rush out and get the damn book already. So I guess that you and then the conversation with Elyse has titilalated me rather than put me..."

The concept of spoiler doesn't really apply to this novel, Magdelanye! Partly because there's so little at stake but also because everything is a one in four chance. Four men set off on an adventure, one dies. That might help the blurb be more enticing! In fact had I read it with that premise I might have been more engaged - the challenge of trying to guess which one dies. The real spoilers I didn't mention.


message 24: by Michael (new)

Michael So funny with your "test for dementia". Very helpful review for me as I took a chance and bought the book (driven in one life thread by a good deal). Now I have to ponder the potential life split of one version where I read this and another where it gathers dust and I follow Life Afer Life with a God in Ruins instead.


Violet wells Michael wrote: "So funny with your "test for dementia". Very helpful review for me as I took a chance and bought the book (driven in one life thread by a good deal). Now I have to ponder the potential life split o..."
You might enjoy it a lot more than i did, Michael. I started off with huge expectations with all the reviews heralding it as a masterpiece. Since then more critical reviews have begun springing up and it probably helps to begin it with more modest expectations. Really looking forward to what you make of it. I'm still a little worried I might have missed some vital cog while reading and it's a lot cleverer than I've given it credit for being.


message 26: by Steven (new)

Steven Godin Violet wrote: "Steven wrote: "Finally decided this is a no go, thanks, Violet."

Just my opinion though, Steven!"


Yes, that may be true, but too many mixed reviews add up in the end. Also sceptical by it's length, something he doesn't normally do.


message 27: by Fionnuala (last edited Apr 07, 2017 07:54AM) (new)

Fionnuala The two questions in your first paragraph are the kind of speculations I would enjoy being thrashed out in a novel, Violet.
It sounds like a real pity that Auster placed his focus elsewhere - and that his 'elsewhere' remained obscure and hidden even from such an insightful reader as you.


Violet wells Steven wrote: "Violet wrote: "Steven wrote: "Finally decided this is a no go, thanks, Violet."

Just my opinion though, Steven!"

Yes, that may be true, but too many mixed reviews add up in the end. Also sceptica..."

It's almost as though he was thinking of posterity. His life work before this probably didn't add up to many pages, certainly compared to Roth, Bellow, DeLillo and Updike. Also, nothing like a big fat book to convince the world you're a genius!


Violet wells Fionnuala wrote: "The two questions in your first paragraph are the kind of speculations I would enjoy being thrashed out in a novel, Violet.
It sounds like a real pity that Auster placed his focus elsewhere - and t..."


I wanted to ask four questions in keeping with the novel's theme but ran out of steam. I'm still wondering if I missed some vital cipher in this novel because he's a hugely clever writer and this seemed essentially half-baked to me.


message 30: by Katie (new) - added it

Katie Great review, Violet. I probably enjoyed it a bit more than you did but nowhere near as much as I expected to.


message 31: by Paula (new) - added it

Paula Brian wrote: "Violet wrote: "I fear it's not going to be terribly approving, Brian!"

But Violet, your approving and disapproving reviews are equally impressive."


I agree with this completely, Brian and Violet!


message 32: by Paula (new) - added it

Paula Fabulous review, Violet. I have it on hold at the library, and will at least give it a shot whenever it arrives - but I won't hold myself to having to finish it if it doesn't work early on for me.


Violet wells Katie wrote: "Great review, Violet. I probably enjoyed it a bit more than you did but nowhere near as much as I expected to."

Thanks Katie.


message 34: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope I lost my time for Auster a few years ago already...


Violet wells Paula wrote: "Fabulous review, Violet. I have it on hold at the library, and will at least give it a shot whenever it arrives - but I won't hold myself to having to finish it if it doesn't work early on for me."

I look forward to what you make of it, Paula. Maybe I missed something. The sheer size of it was perhaps my main gripe.


Violet wells Kalliope wrote: "I lost my time for Auster a few years ago already..."

I loved New York Trilogy, Kal; I was less keen on the other of his I read and can't now remember the title, the dystopian one set in New York.


message 37: by Sidharth (new)

Sidharth Vardhan This novel would be a good test for evaluating how prone you might be to dementia

Describes so many books I have read.


Violet wells Sidharth wrote: "This novel would be a good test for evaluating how prone you might be to dementia

Describes so many books I have read."


Ha ha! I didn't fare too well with this one so I'm a bit concerned.


message 39: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg Wow - finished this after Underworld?


message 40: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg I also wondered about him turning gay in one version - was this suggesting life events would influence someones sexuality?


Elyse Walters Interesting review Violet....love to think about - how you think: I learn from you ...
but...
I'm can understand why Paul Auster wouldn't address the question you ask in the beginning....
( if you didn't find " our hero" interesting that's one thing), but I think it's clear why the question you ask doesn't need to be examined. I did find it interesting to think about in my own life - and his ( I liked the stories he lived), of the different possible life paths.
I wasn't a fan of Life After Life ....as the other 20 something people were in my book club -- because I couldn't STAND how ignorant she was about where babies come from and I was so tire of her dying and dying .... it felt like nails on a chalk board for me... but a better ending.

In this DOORSTOPPER...I think it really comes down to if a reader enjoys the 'chatter' ...
maybe ... maybe.., being Jewish as I am
added an element of enjoyment to me. I knew this guy. His family. I'll never Think it's a two star book . Not this one. Might not be a book that everybody likes ...but it's one I LOVED.
JUST SAVIN. AND O ADORE YOU!
Thank you very much for the view I have a lot of respect for you as you know


Violet wells Elyse wrote: "Interesting review Violet....love to think about - how you think: I learn from you ...
but...
I'm can understand why Paul Auster wouldn't address the question you ask in the beginning....
( if you ..."


Only just seen this, Elyse. I didn't care much for Life After Life either. The alternate lives theme is probably always going to be a bit of a damp squid, requiring as it does so much repetition. Maybe in this novel Auster was a victim of his reputation as a post-modernist writer. Clearly he wanted to revisit his youth but he had to find a gimmick. I'm really intrigued to read Michael Chabon's book because that sounds like what Auster perhaps ought to have done - a fictionalised autobiography. Chatter is a great way to describe a lot of the content of 4321. I can appreciate it'd be more appealing to Americans because it's a very American novel but a lot of stuff went over my head - news items, basketball, baseball, the differences between American colleges. Also it's 900 pages long!


message 43: by Alex (new) - rated it 2 stars

Alex You are so right in yout review. At first i got scared about having to read 1250 pages (the german version). i liked the idea and i still liked the idea and the child Ferguson after 450 pages. now I am at page 679 and i had almost started to read diagonally. it turns slowly in a very boring book where the main character is a very sufficient person. what started at almost 5 stars is going rapidly down to 3 or 2. I will finish it because I hate not finishing books. i hate it because after 400 pages I started liking Ferguson !


message 44: by Violet (last edited May 17, 2017 01:43AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Violet wells I agree, Alex. i was excited about this to begin with but it soon began to feel like a vehicle without an engine, that Auster was pushing ever uphill. Look forward to your review.


Stephanie Sharp Oh dear. I have this on my to-read shelf (it's the length that has kept me from reading it). I, too, always have time for Auster. But I wish I had seen your review before getting this one! I'll still read it, though. He can be a bit of a navel gazer!


Violet wells Stephanie wrote: "Oh dear. I have this on my to-read shelf (it's the length that has kept me from reading it). I, too, always have time for Auster. But I wish I had seen your review before getting this one! I'll sti..."

Probably if you go into it with expectations a little lower it'll offer more rewards, Stephanie. The writing's consistently excellent. I'd only heard great things about it when I read it and was expecting a masterpiece.


message 47: by Lars (new) - added it

Lars Jerlach Excellent review Violet.


Violet wells Lars wrote: "Excellent review Violet."

Thank you Lars.


Violet wells Not sure how this made the Booker short list and Moonglow didn't!


message 50: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Oh...how frustrating. To have the good questions but give an unsatisfactory shape to the answers. This fine review reminds me of all my issues when I tried to read Auster some years ago, for a while I thought I should keep on trying, but now I am not so sure...


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