"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. "--
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.