Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1”

March 19th, 2017  |  Published in March 2017

Paul Auster’s 886 page new novel, titled ” 4 3 2 1″, may well be an American masterpiece. Skipping early American literature, which I often find tough sledding, I believe that America’s greatest writers, after Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Henry James and later, John Dos Posos and F. Scott Fitzgerald, appeared after World War II, and include Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, John Cheever, John O’Hara, Henry Miller, and John Updike. Many of post-war writers were keen observers of the American suburb, another oddly relatively unique American invention. And I’d now put Paul Auster in that category, particularly with this new novel.

4 3 2 1 begins with a joke, wherein a new American immigrant arrives at Ellis Island, and another man suggests that he take the name “Rockefeller” in this country. When the immigration official asks him his name, he replies in his own language/accent that “he’s forgotten” what his name is supposed to be, but the official translates the last name as Ferguson, which comes from the Slavic word for “forgotten”. The novel builds upon that joke/idea, and our Ferguson, generally known only by his last name, is a suburban boy in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey, smart, Jewish, literary. The novel consists of four different versions of Ferguson’s story, from childhood through college, but not beyond. Each version of Ferguson’s background/history pretty much has the same cast of characters: Ferguson’s mother and father, and later stepfather and step-sister, with a few friends included. The reader needs to be prepared for the narratives to change, sometimes mid-chapter, though more often not. For example, in one narrative, Ferguson will attend Columbia University; in another, Princeton University; in another he doesn’t go to college and moves to Paris, and the like. Auster’s Ferguson is an eminently likeable fellow, sensitive, a good athlete, a good friend, and we’re privy to his internal growth and development as well as to his varied externals. Each narrative is as possibly accurate/ “true” as each other, and eventually the reader will understand that this novel itself is the product of someone’s imagination, probably the author’s or someone else who becomes a real writer. I don’t know whether or not the novel’s autobiographical in any way, nor does that terribly matter, but Ferguson’s as persuasive a character in this novel as Rabbit Angstsrom is in the four “Rabbit” novels by John Updike, which I believe are the greatest novels in all of American literature.

Each Ferguson character incarnation is a product of his parent’s divorce, his refusal to ever see his father again, and his father’s stubborn refusal to see him. Ferguson’s most admirable mother, early a professional photographer, is one of the most fully delineated female characters in recent American literature, as is Ferguson’s step-sister, Amy, with whom he is in love in all four incarnations of Ferguson (the title is taken from these four different Fergusons). Secondary male friends of Ferguson’s, from his step cousin Noah to several college friends (depending upon which college he’s at in which part of the novel), are deeply felt and brilliantly delineated, as are Ferguson’s grandparents. His love affair with New York City is a backdrop in all four Ferguson narratives; growing up in suburban New Jersey, Ferguson longs for the cultural richness of New York, including its automats, and, mostly its rich availability of films, which are a key part of Ferguson’s intellectual growth, and, later, his book. Sections on the influence of Laurel and Hardy films on our Ferguson are exceptionally brilliant, as are passages in one incarnation where Ferguson and his mother have to make it together on their own after the father/husband’s demise; they roam around Manhattan for two months before settling into an apartment/life/school/job; this is truly exceptional writing and character analysis. (In one incarnation, incidentally, the writer makes Ferguson either gay or bisexual, too, which is a brilliant literary trope, too).

The writing is dense and mesmerizing; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s recent series of books called “The Struggle” (Parts I through IV are now out) came to mind often, as both novels dwell on daily detail to build their characters and their environments to maximum effect. And Auster uses the times in which the various Fergusons live as backdrops to the developments of the characters, so that when Ferguson is at Columbia, we live through those riots on that campus in l969 fully and brilliantly. How Ferguson gets screwed out of his scholarship at Princeton University is also a highlight of this novel in its cynical brilliance, too. Ferguson’s slow and awkward sexual awakening is done admirably and sensitively in all four versions of this character, and the writing and understanding of male teenage adolescence is part of the genius of Auster’s novel. The reader will empathize with every version of Ferguson; his time in Paris in two different incarnations is also particularly gorgeous writing. It’s too early in the year to claim that Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is the best novel of the year, but it certainly is, to date, and if you like reading a very long novel, this is the one for you, too. I promise that you’ll never once be bored–au contraire, you’re likely to be as riveted as I was reading this most astonishing book. I recommend it without any reservations.

–Daniel Brown

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