Reading Auster’s 4321 in hardback, my initial response to this novel was largely focused on the physical act of reading. I’m certainly not afraid to tackle long novels and, given the choice, I still prefer to have an actual book in my hands when I’m reading (although that is changing as I do read ebooks sent for review) and my ideal place for reading is somewhere comfortable. This book, this reading experience, was not like that. The weight of the novel, the physicality of so many pages bound together, meant that I was very aware of the need to balance the book on the kitchen table or another surface, if I was to be comfortable at all. And so, perhaps fittingly, given the meta-fictive elements of most of Auster’s stories, I was more aware than usual that I was occupying the role of reader. Perhaps this has always been one of his particular talents and perhaps why he’s on the Man Booker shortlist. I have loved his work – but, and I’ll get this out early, I do not think 4321 is as good as his mid-1980s New York Trilogy. Reading those three novels as one collection, their sharp, interlocking narratives left me stunned by his ingenuity as a writer and desperate to find others to discuss it with. Oh for the Blogosphere in those days.
‘Everyone had always told Ferguson that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the hero died on page 204 or 926, but now that the future he had imagined for himself was changing, his understanding of time was changing as well.’
In this new novel, Auster casts his protagonist, Ferguson, a boy from New Jersey, in four parallel lives and Ferguson’s resulting personalities are shaped according to circumstance. Perhaps inevitably, it is really only at the end that you are able to appreciate this effort as a whole. Now and then, Auster offers recaps for whichever life he’s dealing with at the time, referring back to previous events in that Ferguson’s life – I was grateful for these nudges, but this strategy might not have been needed if the novel had been a tad less sprawling. An obvious reference back to a summer spent in Paris, or similar, sometimes felt clunky. Yes, the sheer detail of the lives Ferguson inhabits mean you become immersed in Auster’s variations, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have done with a bit of editing. Even the narrator seems to be wearing of the effort of sustaining this massive opus: on page 801 we’re told that ‘Ferguson squandered the next six months pursuing two different women who were not worth the effort of pursuing and shall remain nameless because they are not worth the effort of naming.’ It’s a knowing authorial voice, and one we perhaps expect from Auster, but if the reader is also flagging, it risks not coming off as quite intended.
The act of writing features large, again reminding us of the self-reflexive nature of much of Auster’s work. In all four lives here, Auster’s Fergusons write, be it poetic translations, sports reports, or novels. ‘Laslo Flute’, a character devised by the fourth Ferguson, has to choose between three different roads, each taking him into different narratives. Later, this same version of Ferguson produces a novel called ‘The Capital of Ruins’, with both these ideas being the most Auster-like of all of the writings in 4321.
The metaphor of roads diverging and routes not taken is often explicitly discussed: ‘You’ll never know if you made the wrong choice or not… the only way to get all the facts is to be in two places at the same time – which is impossible.’ But obviously Auster, as author, gets to do just this. Early on, the young Ferguson, bed-bound because he has broken his leg after falling out of a tree, is struck by how easily his life might take very different routes: ‘anything was possible, and just because things happened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t happen in another.’ However, it is only the characters who are at the mercy of Auster’s diverging roads. He doesn’t breach accepted historical facts. Following the assassination of JFK, Ferguson’s world, like that of so many, is thrown into chaos: ‘two roads diverged in an unreal city, and the future was dead.’ Ferguson’s four lives may take very different routes but one of the strongest elements of this novel is the fact that Auster’s characters are often at the forefront of the ideological struggles of the generation coming of age in the late 50s and 6os. What differs is the way the four Fergusons respond. Only the love of Ferguson’s four lives, Amy Schneiderman, seems to remain intrinsically the same, ‘for Amy was not the sort of girl who had been designed for mass production’.
Finishing this novel felt something of an achievement – it’s not so much the length that makes it a marathon but the structure, the jumping between lives, which requires stamina. There’s no doubt that Auster deserves his reputation as a phenomenal author with a highly distinctive voice. But I do not think this is the best novel on the Man Booker shortlist this year.
Links to my reviews of other books on this year’s Man Booker Shortlist: