4 3 2 1 : a novel

by Paul Auster

Hardcover, 2017





New York : Henry Holt and Company, 2017.


"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. "--"A sweeping family saga (with a bit of a twist) about the life and loves of Archie Ferguson, a Jewish boy born to second-generation immigrants in the United States just after World War II"--… (more)

Media reviews

Tot ongeveer pagina 850 kon ik geen genoeg krijgen van dit boek. Het is het verhaal van Ferguson’s leven, maar dan vier keer opgeschreven, met kleine variaties. Door toevalligheden worden de verschillen groter naarmate hij ouder wordt. In alle versies is hij verliefd op Amy. Hij scheelt maar drie maanden met Amy en zij zit daardoor een klas hoger. In het ene verhaal is het zijn stiefzus en in de andere versie een nichtje. Hij gaat naar verschillende universiteiten of hij gaat naar Parijs. Aan het eind wordt het verhaal erg gedetailleerd met lijsten van films over zelfmoord. Maar ook over de top 100 van boeken om te lezen, die zijn stiefvader Gil hem meegeeft naar Parijs. Of de redenen waarom Celia Federman hem zal verlaten...lees verder >

User reviews

LibraryThing member starbox
Phew, 866 pages and a totally original structure, in which Auster tells the story of Archie Ferguson, a New Yorker of Jewish parentage, growing up in the 1960s. Against a world of war and civil unrest, we follow Archie, a bright, sports loving chap with plans to become a writer. His Dad runs a furniture store, his mother's a photographer.
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.
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LibraryThing member teunduynstee
I'm quite divided on this novel. Let's start with the good.

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.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is the Goliath nominee of this year's Man Booker Prize. At nearly 900 pages, it is not only long, it is unnecessarily long. Though Auster has quite a lustrous career behind him, he takes this opportunity to write a novel that sounds like an undergraduate's wet dream project: a “what if” in the life of a young man; four tellings of the same protagonist in the same setting, but with four different outcomes. It's an ambitious project and though its premise sounds a bit juvenile, I think it could've been done well if done differently. Surely, Auster's skill with weaving words has lifted 4 3 2 1 far above being a mere adolescent traipse through history. Sadly, though written with love and precision, it doesn't rise far above this status.

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.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
This is really 4 stories, or 4 versions of a possible story with the same characters. In each version, the main character is a boy, Archie Ferguson, and in each story, Archie has many of the same personality traits and quirks. And in each story, many of the same characters intersect Archie's life and these characters are also basically the same people. But what changes is the circumstances. So in one story, a devastating fire turns Archie's life upside down, and in other version of his life, it's a lightning storm that changes Archie's fate. But in each story, his personality remains the same.

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.
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
Paul Auster might not be a house-hold name, but it surely ought to be. He has written a dozen novels, a collection of poetry, two hands full each of non-fiction, screen plays, illustrated books, and he edited several other works. His latest novel is 4321, which made the 2017 Booker Prize Short List. Every year, I pick three novels from the long list, and try to read them all before the winner is announced. I have come close a few times. Last year I picked three from the long list, but none of mine survived to take home the prize. This year I tried again. The three I picked made the short list. I already had read one – Lincoln on the Bardo by George Saunders – and I owned Paul Auster’s 4321. I felt confident that I would have picked the winner this year, and I did. George Saunders greatly deserved the prize for a wonderfully inventive and absorbing novel. I have already reviewed it for Likely Stories, and I renew my declaration of Lincoln as a first-rate novel. However, my favorite was the Auster's tome of 866 pages.

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.

--Chiron, 10/28/2917
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LibraryThing member jmhdassen
A very uneven book. Sometimes spellbinding and then at times utterly boring and long-winded.
LibraryThing member bibliotecayamaguchi
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 Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up—again and again and again.

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.
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LibraryThing member HOTCHA
WOW, Talk about holding a grudge on his father! Ferguson is a troubled young man after he learned that his parents had fallen out of love with each other and were acting like a loving couple until he was out of school so they can get divorced and marry their flings. Surprising 4321 twists, turns , and splits into FOUR boys who struggle to lead four parallel and different lives! You almost need a score card to keep up!… (more)
LibraryThing member JaredOrlando
4 3 2 1 is a gigantic undertaking, for Auster as well as the reader. Totaling just shy of 900 pages, it isn't necessarily a book you would want to carry around. But you will.

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.
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LibraryThing member NeedMoreShelves
This book is 100% not a novel I'd normally pick up - but my "read the lit prize shortlist" challenge brought it to my attention, and this type of novel is absolutely why I'm expanding my reading horizons with that challenge.

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.
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LibraryThing member runner56
Told throught the eyes of Archie Ferguson 4321 is really a picture of 60's America with all its dirty laundry on show! Racism, Vietnam war, Tricky Dick, anti war demonstrations, student unrest/riots, the summer of love, free love, the beautiful pill, Martin Luther King, JFK, KKK, Manson, one small step for man, rampant consumerism, Bay of pigs, Woodstork, Oswald, Ruby, Khrushchev, Che Guevara, Castro, marijuana, lsd, helter skelter...the list is endless
The novel poses the question...what if we could live our lives over again, would we make the same decisions? the same mistakes? would we choose the same or a different path? This is cleverly achieved as the author introduces not one Archie Ferguson but 3 and we follow their separate lives as individually they make different decisions with different outcomes.
The book is enjoyable, Paul Auster is an accomplished, and clever wordsmith but at over 1000 pages (paperback) it is in need of some critical word management/editing. At times brilliant, at times challenging, at times confusing the story moves forwards and backwards at a franatic pace and needs some serious reading time devoted solely for the purpose of completion.
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LibraryThing member techeditor
Simply put, 4 3 2 1 presents Archie Ferguson's four possible lives. That is, one Ferguson is born, but his life might have gone one way or another or another or another. 4 3 2 1 examines each way his life might have gone.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member kenkarpay
Paul Auster’s 4, 3, 2, 1 is an entertaining, perplexing and at times confusing take on the concept of multiple versions of the same life. What would happen if the same person’s life was lived at four different ways? Auster’s writing style in this over 800 page novel (in its original hardback) is filled with sentences that run hundreds of words long but flow easily. The book raises a lot of perplexing age-old questions: is a person’s character and sexual orientation fixed upon birth, or would it vary with different external circumstances? How much of what happens to us is fate, luck or based on our own choices and effort? If the key to a great novel is whether it challenges you to think deeply about the characters and feel both joy and pain when something good and bad happens to them, then this is a book worth the effort.… (more)
LibraryThing member OscarWilde87
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
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.
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LibraryThing member brakketh
Four different life paths told throughout the novel and the course of a young mans life. Meandering novel that focuses on social realism.
LibraryThing member mausergem
I got through one third of this book and I realized that I was not enjoying the story of a white guy in some American suburb told four times over. So I quit.
LibraryThing member asxz
Well, that was a monster. Never less than readable and always provoking this is a giant novel in all ways. As much a meditation on the quantum possibilities of a life as the ways in which a novelist can consider and capture these possibilities. Auster is absolutely at the top of his game here, equal parts self-obsessed and opening up a vein (several veins) for his readers. This was bloody good reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member Iira
It was not the right time for me to read this book. I could not concentrate on which story was which, and was at times bored and/or confused. An ok read as such, which is how I managed to pull through, but I could not wait for it to end and that's never a good thing. I liked the idea, but somehow the stories were too vapid for me to give a shit. Three stars, because of the idea and I've given the same to less interesting ones.… (more)



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