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4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
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We’ve all heard of a holy trinity, but a not-so-holy quartet? And that’s exactly what Auster does in this autobiographical novel covering his life ranging from the years 0-25 of age, in which he renames himself Ferguson and sends this fictitious self down four possible life paths, subject to the winds of chance.

The book is a "novel" construct, if I could pun on the word: seven distinct phases during Ferguson’s 25 years, each life repeating after the next as in 1.1, 1.2,1.3,1.4 and then onto the second phase of 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4 etc — I think you might have the hang of it by now. The problem for the reader is that keeping track of the divergent paths of each life is difficult and I had to keep notes of what happened in 1.1 so that I could pick up that particular life of Ferguson again in 2.1. Not all of the lives will make it to the final phase 7, and that speaks to Chance, Auster’s pet theme that occurs in many of his books, but all lives are tortured, because all four Fergusons aspired to be authors. Only one of the lives may be attributed to the real Auster, or so we find out. The opening chapter 1.0 was by far the most interesting for me for it reveals the genesis of the Ferguson family, starting with our quartered hero’s grandfather, Reznikoff, who arrives at Ellis Island and is urged by a fellow émigré to change his name to Rockefeller lest he become an outcast; Grandpa forgets his new name when he faces the immigration official and says in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten), and winds up being named Ichabod Ferguson—in one fell stroke of chance, a Russian Jew is converted to a Scottish Presbyterian. Welcome to America!

The other problem that glares in this book is Auster’s telling style. He is known for very little dialogue (and even that is never in quotes) and for a strong narrative preference. Well, when you have four repeating stories that have the same cast of characters alternate roles, and where the same incidents have to be altered as well, the novel becomes a pile up of incidents and a long, repeating journey through the mind of Ferguson for almost 900 pages. The characters get muddled up and it is difficult to get a fix on them. I began skipping.

The book covers the period starting at the end of WWII and ends around 1970 when the Vietnam War was tearing America apart. The early years show the birth of the post-WWII American Dream: courtship, marriage, economic growth, jobs, consumerism, the buying of houses, pregnancies, deaths, and scams - the stuff of middle class life during a boom. In the later years, we see the death of the American Dream as the young men of Ferguson’s age hover on the brink of being drafted into a war crafted by Nobodaddy (the term used for old men who send young men to war to achieve their own selfish ends). The only hope for those who can afford it is to continue their post-secondary education or damage parts of their anatomy so that they would be considered ineligible for the draft. Ferguson comes of age amidst the college protests in Columbia and Kent State, prison riots in Attica, the flower power of Woodstock, and the sexual revolution when sleeping around was de rigueur. The libidinous scenes are well done, including the homosexual ones.

I was left wondering why Auster needed this doorstopper to record his early life, when one of the four lives, the real one, would have sufficed. I came up with the following possibilities:
a) He was writing to please himself, now that he is at the end of his career and really doesn’t have to give a damn about the critics.
b) All of his early life’s experiences wouldn’t fit into a single linear narrative and he needed four to cover them all.
c) His need to experiment with Chance required many permutations and combinations.
d) In prepping for this novel, he had scoped out four story lines and was reluctant to let go of any of them when he got down to the writing.
e) He was trying to develop a new form for the novel, the achievement that most novelists are remembered for—remember Joyce, Hemingway and Proust?

Well, if it was the last reason, this new form doesn’t inspire me much. Although I liked the glimpse into the world of the writer that he offered me. Young Ferguson, in each of his lives, begins writing from an early age. He is also involved in the world of small presses, which on reflection doesn’t look much different from the small presses of today; they are usually started by a bunch of young writers looking to get their own work published; they have limited circulation and provide little or no monetary reward, are backed by a rich patron, and inevitably go belly up when the patron loses interest or the life circumstances of the founders change. And Nixon-era America doesn’t look any different from Trump-era America, probably worse.

I wondered about the four lives of Ferguson and about my life at that stage. How easy was it for a chance incident—a falling tree, a runaway car or a carelessly thrown cigarette—to have altered or short circuited a life, my life or anyone’s life. Auster is not easy reading for this very reason. His existentialist stance implies that the best of efforts may amount to nothing in the end.

As for Rockefeller, despite all his prior attempts to govern the country, he too ended up as Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford only by sheer chance.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 3, 2019 – Shelved
March 3, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by John (new)

John Charlton Sounds like a simultaneous Groundhog Day with no chance of redemption.


message 2: by Shane (last edited Mar 04, 2019 02:35PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Shane John wrote: "Sounds like a simultaneous Groundhog Day with no chance of redemption."

There's redemption for one out of the four - you have to guess who in the beginning. After awhile it becomes clearer.


message 3: by John (new)

John Charlton Hence the skipping.


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