"Paul Auster's greatest, most heartbreaking and satisfying novel -- a sweeping and surprising story of birthright and possibility, of love and of life itself: a masterpiece. Nearly two weeks early, on March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson's life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four identical Fergusons made of the same DNA, four boys who are the same boy, go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Athletic skills and sex lives and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Each Ferguson falls under the spell of the magnificent Amy Schneiderman, yet each Amy and each Ferguson have a relationship like no other. Meanwhile, readers will take in each Ferguson's pleasures and ache from each Ferguson's pains, as the mortal plot of each Ferguson's life rushes on. As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written, yet with a passion for realism and a great tenderness and fierce attachment to history and to life itself that readers have never seen from Auster before. 4 3 2 1 is a marvelous and unforgettably affecting tour de force. "--
It is a monumental novel that brings to life the main characters supplying ample context. The prose is beautiful, yet easy to read. The main subject, the different paths a human life could take from the same starting point, is of course not very new or mind blowing, but interesting nonetheless. I personally can really enjoy stories that are told in a non-linear way and with many characters, so I enjoyed the structure here as well.
On the bad side. First, I think it is just too long. My copy ran about 900 pages. It is not for me to tell an author what to leave in and what not, but for me as a reader it was just too much. Also, the constant switching between the different lives of Archie was too confusing for me. It is one thing when an author intertwines several threads with their own characters into one overarching novel, but having the same characters with the same names, but different histories and subtly different personalities? I just couldn't manage it, had to repeatedly thumb back to the previous chapter for this life and it left me feeling like an inadequate reader. Note taking could help, I guess. Or maybe to have a tiny summary of the preceding at the start of each chapter? Just as a reminder of which Archie, which Amy, which parents we are reading about here.
Summarising, I would say that I enjoyed the read, but in hindsight should have taken some note to support my own reading. I could be that the blurring of memories from one life into the other was the purpose, but it didn't add much for me.
Also, I was left with many questions. As there is no clear point where the four stories split (other than birth), it left me asking why? Why did one Archie turn out the way he does and not the others? The only answer I can see is that life is so turbulent that anything can happen, caused by the tiniest differences (chaos theory). But then still: which differences. And why 4 stories and not a gazillion? And why only split at birth? Why not have life 1 and 2 in chapter one and a 1.1 and 1.2 and a 2.1 and 2.2 after that. Of course, I wouldn't want the book to be a billion pages, but these thoughts remain totally unexplored.
Contrary to what one might expect, there are no catalysts for the detours in young Archie Ferguson's lives. In the opening passages, I was looking for one and was sort of disappointed to miss it. The fact is, the world is simply different for Archie. In one world he lives with his mother and father, in another he's with his mother and step-father. These differences are not presented as being the outcome of choices a young Ferguson made, they just are. And so, one might assume, there are differences in each of the worlds surrounding the four Fergusons, but no the only difference is Ferguson and those he touches. It's as though the world revolves around Ferguson. That's a lot of pressure on a young man. And so, the 1950s and, to a larger extent, the 1960s roll by one time, two times, three times, and four, all without hitch or pause. Though Archie's life has changed drastically, nothing else has: Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, Nixon, King. Ironically, despite the four different paths that vary, Ferguson ends up okay in each one. I mean, you'd expect one of the Archie's to be a raging racist or something, but no, Ferguson always has the foresight to be a proponent of civil rights and that makes him swell. If you can't tell, I guess I'm not that big of a fan of Ferguson. I mean, I spent 900 pages with Archie-Alpha, -Beta, -Gamma, and -Delta—you'd think I'd like the guy a bit more. But Ferguson didn't challenge me or evoke any feeling from me. He was sort of a whiny, privileged kid (even when he wasn't so privileged).
The writing was fine. Before I started to feel bitter about the novel, I felt pulled in to the presentation. I could see myself enjoying a shorter, more focused Auster novel. But at some point, I began to realize this was more of a meandering mess than I cared to wrap myself in. There's so much detail about the lives of the four Fergusons. One begins to wonder if it isn't a bit much, especially when Auster goes on a twelve-page summary of fourteen-year-old Ferguson's short story about talking shoes called "Sole Mates." Was the story important to 4 3 2 1? Yes. Did we need a full summary of the story? Absolutely not. A standard sized paragraph would've been more than was needed. But twelve long pages? Later, Ferguson ponders British actors that starred in Hollywood films. He makes a list in his notebook. And we're blessed with the complete list, all seventy names. These are the sort of things that make this book 900 pages and there was absolutely no need for it.
It may sound like I hated this book and wish to destroy its happiness. I didn't hate it. 4 3 2 1 is a competent epic and it surely has an audience. Personally, I tend to love large books because of the complete stories they often tell. But 4 3 2 1 doesn't tell a complete story. Most of the novel covers the lives of the Fergusons in the sixties. And when you divide this by four storylines, you're really only getting four average sized novels rehashing the same decade. And really, what was the point of it all? You expect there to be a catalyst or some revelation in the end that ties the four lines together. But no. JFK is still shot. Students are still murdered on college campuses. But Archie Ferguson gets to decide if he wants to climb a tree or not.
Sadly, the longer this novel went on, the less I liked it. I just didn't buy Ferguson's lack of freewill. It's obvious that his social and political stances are being shaped by the author. Despite leading four very different lives, young Ferguson can choose who he wants to fall in love with, but doesn't get to choose which side of politics to be on.
Recently, Auster admitted that he struggles with ideas these days: “I used to have a backlog of stories, but a few years ago I found the drawers were empty. I guess I’m getting to the point where I tell myself if I can’t write another book it’s not a tragedy.” I think he was grasping for an idea with this one. And though it obviously caught the attention of the Man Booker judges, I was not impressed. That said, my interest in Auster has been piqued and I definitely would love to read some of his earlier, shorter works. Just think, perhaps in another life I thought this was the greatest book ever written.
Man Booker Prize 2017:
I'll be a little surprised if this one makes it to the shortlist. It's not particularly relevant right now. It's not enjoyable to a mainstream audience. It's not all that original or brilliant. It's competent and capable, which is why I think it was fine to be included on the longlist, but it doesn't strike me as an eventual winner. Frankly, it feels a bit too much like the old, east coast white male perspective that has dominated literature for decades. I hope these authors continue to write their stories and that we continue to read and enjoy them, but their time of being celebrated as “the best” has come to a close. It's time to honor fresh ideas, styles, and perspectives.
The book is LONG and it's not a plot driven novel, but Auster is so talented in his story telling that it was easy to immerse myself in this single character with 4 different possibilities. It made me reflect on all the different possibilities of my own life - a 'road not taken' type of musing.
4321 is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It is a story of a man from Russia who escaped with jewels and money sown into the lining of his coat. He ends up on Ellis Island, and meets a fellow traveler who warns him his alphabet soup of a Yiddish/Russian name would get him nowhere. When he finally sits before the examiner, he says in Yiddish, “Ikh hob Fargessen” (I’ve forgotten)! The clerk entered his name as Ichabod Ferguson. Ichabod fathers four sons, who, in turn create offspring of their own. Archie Ferguson, grandson of Ichabod, becomes the focus of the story.
Now, before you quickly run to the nearest book store or fire up Amazon “One-click-Ordering,” a few words of advice. First, make lots of family trees to keep the main characters straight. Second, have a good dictionary at hand, and third, readers might want to familiarize themselves with the latest theories of the Multiverse. Also, readers play close attention to Chapter 2.2. This is a complex novel to say the least. 4321 is what I call a “puzzle novel”.
Despite all this, I was amazed at how I could gobble up dozens of pages at a sitting. While it did take nearly a month – stacks of essays and other tasks – robbed me of many hours of reading. I needed to become accustomed to his style of long sentences – some running to a page or more – I was mesmerized from the first line. I spent lots of time figuring out the odd chapter numbers, not to forget the odd title, but it was worth every single minute. I have already worked out a plan for a second read this summer.
I have many, many passages noted for this review, so choosing among them will be tough. Especially since Archie, a year or two ahead of me, had many shared experiences, fears, joys, and sorrows. Here is one brief passage in chapter 1.1, “The best things in the world were vanilla ice cream and jumping up and down on his parents’ bed. The worst things in the world were stomach aches and fevers” (31). Archie also invented an imaginary brother.
Archie’s Aunt Mildred was a college professor, and she carefully guided him along a reading life path. She sent him dozens of recommendations and books for him to read. The list was magnificent, and although he rarely saw his Aunt Mildred, they did keep in touch and always talked about what Archie was reading. In one of his letters home, Auster writes, “‘I’ve read three books since I’ve been here,’ he wrote in the last letter, which was dated August 9th, ‘and I thought they were all terrific. Two of them were sent to me by my Aunt Mildred, and a little one by Franz Kafka called The Metamorphosis and a bigger one by J.D. Salinger called The Catcher in the Rye. The other was fiven to me by my cousin Francie’s husband Gary—Candide by Voltaire. The Kafka book is by far the weirdest and most difficult to read, but I loved it. A man wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s been turned into an enormous insect! It sounds like science fiction or a horror story, but it isn’t. It’s about the man’s soul. The Catcher in the Rye is about a high school boy wandering around New York. Nothing much happens in it, but the way Holden talks (he’s the hero) is very realistic and true, and you can’t help liking him and wishing he could be your friend. Candide is an old book from the 18th century, but it is wild and funny, and I laughed out loud on almost every page” (179).
When I reached about a hundred pages to the end, I frequently cried, and I slowed down my reading to only a couple of pages – at the most! – because I did not want it to end. But when I did finish, I knew it would never end. Paul Auster, 4321, and Archie Fergusun will be with me for a long time -- as long as I can manage reading. 10 Stars.
A 800+ page novel, written by a dude, about another dude? Pass. Not my wheelhouse, not my interest list, not for me. And yet. Somehow, I am completely and utterly in love with this behemoth of a story about the four lives of Archie Ferguson.
I think tackling this on audiobook was the way to go - I'm sure I would have bailed trying to get through the print version. But somehow, against the odds, I found myself sucked in to Archie's world - Archie's FOUR worlds, to be exact, and the tiny decisions that completely altered the trajectory of his lives.
AND - let's be honest - Rose Ferguson and Amy Schneiderman are a couple of FAN-freaking-TASTIC female characters. Good job, Auster, for giving readers these two complex and important women to impact Archie's life.
I am 100% sure this book is not for everyone - but good gracious, am I glad I gave it a chance.
As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written 4 3 2 1 is an unforgettable tour de force, the crowning work of this masterful writer’s extraordinary career.
Once you are into the story and in tune to his unique style of prose, including page-long sentences, you are jumping onto a literary train that is hard to jump off until you are at the end, smiling sadly instead of exasperated. And when you're inching toward the end, you'll begin to read slower. For the stories Auster weaves, and the characters he introduces, you won't feel compelled to say goodbye.
Whereas a book this size would cause one to feel overwhelmed, Auster masterfully pulls you along, engaging page after page, showing that he is an author to be reckoned with, and even, perhaps, worshipped.
I liked 4 3 2 1, and I didn't like it. Its references to history, literature, and movies are superb. But the length of the book combined with the disjointed presentation of Ferguson's four possible lives often leads to confusion.
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Robert Frost: "The Road Not Taken")
Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 relates the story of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, an American Jew growing up in New Jersey and New York in the second half of the twentieth century. The novel encompasses his whole life, starting on March 3, 1947, and is set against the background of many important historical events in the United States, such as the presidency and assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement.
Unusual for Auster is the length of this work. At over a thousand pages it is much longer than the author's former novels. Nevertheless, Auster does not lose his touch for precise and stylistically impeccable prose. With this novel, though, there is so much to tell. The structure follows the precept of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", only that with this novel it is not two roads that diverged in a wood but rather four different versions of the same story, that is the life of protagonist Ferguson. So as not to spoil the reading experience let me not go into much detail here. Only let it be said that there are certain common factors in each of the four strands of the story and the main characters surface in each of those strands, with slightly different roles, however. Auster explores Ferguson's life in great detail: from growing up via his first relationship and sexual encounters to his life as a student and later on as a writer. It would not be Auster if there were not some meta level that the novel works on. In order not to give away too much, let me simply recommend reading the novel to find out more.
I enjoyed reading this novel a lot. It is often the characters that make you love or hate a story and with 4 3 2 1 you get four versions of the same character. So if you have ever been reading a novel wondering what might have happened if the protagonist had done certain things differently, this is your novel because it explores exactly that: the what-ifs and the coulda-beens. The only minor aspect that bugged me a little every now and then is Auster's choice of structuring the novel. With each chapter, there are four different versions of roughly the same period of time in the protagonist's life. So once you have read 1.1, 1.2 will start afresh. When you start the second chapter, 2.1 will pick up where 1.1 left off and so on and so forth. This was sometimes slightly confusing and I was wondering whether it might not have made more sense to have four chapters, each of which would tell the whole story, so that there would be no interruptions. This would have made the unfolding of events less disrupted and more linear within each of the four versions. In the end, however, I think it might have taken away much of the reading experience, so I perfectly see why Auster decided to go with this structure and I see its merits. However, with regard to continuity I found it hard sometimes to differentiate between the four strands and how events had exactly unfolded in which strand. Having said that, I would highly recommend reading 4 3 2 1 to anyone who is interested in character development, can relate to growing up in the US in the second half of the twentieth century or simply everyone who likes Auster's works. 4.5 stars for a superb novel.
These are the facts. But Auster now imagines the different way things could have turned out, if only things had been a bit different. "The endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life" is a theme throughout. And thus Auster tells four separate narratives side by side, four versions of the same person: one loses a family member, one suffers an injury. Is it the lack of success in his love life that propels one, feeling lonely, towards homosexuality? Things turn out well, financially, for one, less so for another. Each encounter a different set of people, who also impact differently on the character's lives.
It is, as I say, a mammoth read, with Auster giving examples of his hero's literary efforts, sometimes unnecessarily detailed accounts of a baseball game or the finer points of the American anti-Vietnam movement. Sometimes i forgot which Archie I was following.
But highly readable throughout, highly original and I enjoyed it.