I love novels that look at what might have happened had this happened instead of that, or if a different decision had been made, and so I was instantly intrigued when Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 appeared on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
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.
Structurally, 4 3 2 1 is surprisingly (deceptively) straightforward. The first chapter (1.0) gives you the background on Ferguson’s family, focusing mainly on his grandparents and parents, how they met, when they married, etc. From there, chapters 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 cover the four different versions of Ferguson’s childhood, before moving on in 2.1, 2.2, etc. It’s worth knowing that the x.1 chapters always feature the same version of Ferguson, and this should have made it easier to keep track of which one was which, I still had to remind myself what had happened to each in the previous chapter. To add to the confusion, some characters appear in multiple versions of Ferguson’s life, and in varying capacities – his girlfriend in one version might be his cousin in another, for example, and because of the similarities, it is easy to get the tales mixed up.
The first chapters in the novel (the 1.x chapters) are quite similar, and cover his life as a small child. Those chapters all end quite differently, however, and set the tone for what comes next in his life as these four paths begin to diverge, and by the end of the novel, the four Fergusons find themselves in quite different places and / or circumstances. I would struggle to pick out a preferred narrative of the four however – I found them all to be entertaining and engaging in their own way. Some are happier than others, but each Ferguson goes through his own highs and lows at different times.
Going into this novel, I was expecting it to cover a longer span of Ferguson’s life. Having finished it, I understand why it doesn’t, but I was a little surprised that it spent so much time on his late teens, and ends with Ferguson in his twenties. A lot happens to Ferguson (all the Fergusons) in that time, and it uses the momentous (and often calamitous) events as a backdrop to his story – those moments that you’ll always remember where you were when IT happened.
The danger with this kind of novel is that it becomes repetitive, and I did feel that I was covering familiar ground at times. There is a nice little twist at the end, however, which I didn’t see coming, and overall, I really enjoyed this novel.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐