Paul Auster’s latest novel, by far his longest, opens with a moment of transformational humour. A Russian immigrant, Isaac Reznikoff, crosses to America in the last days of the nineteenth century aboard the ship Empress of China, and comes first to rest, as so many did, on Ellis Island. There, as Isaac waits to be processed by an immigration official, a fellow Russian Jew forewarns him that he will have to make certain accommodations if he wishes to be accepted into America—“Forget the name Reznikoff,” his fellow traveller says. “It won’t do you any good here.” Instead, they settle on a new, unimpeachably American, freedom-loving persona: Rockefeller. Once his turn with the official comes, however, hours later, Reznikoff cannot remember the name that the pair agreed upon, and when asked his name, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”
The bulk of 4 3 2 1 does not follow the story of the newly christened Ichabod Ferguson in the early twentieth century, rather that of his grandson Archie (who goes by just ‘Ferguson’) as he grows up in the 1950s and 60s, but the impact and thematic resonance of that first rupture of the one identity into the other remains central. The novel’s title refers to its structure, whereby each chapter or section is divided into four parts, each one relating the narrative of a different version of Archie Ferguson. The early years of the first Archie, then, are presented under the chapter headings ‘1.1’, ‘2.1’, etc., and in between each of these chapters there are separate ones from each of the other three Archies. It sounds confusing when written down like this, and often confused me, too, as I read the first hundred pages or so. As has long been common in his often-mysterious writing, beginning with his New York Trilogy in the mid-80s, Auster taunts the reader searching for a grasp of his characters in moments of playful self-reference: “[o]ne of the odd things about being himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves”. Our relationship with each of the protagonists’ “contradictory selves,” then, is not a given, and there will I think be readers for whom the rather grandiose architecture of the novel will present an insurmountable obstacle to empathy.
‘one of those inhabitable works of art that characterized whole days of my life’
But as the structure of the work settled into place in my mind, 4 3 2 1 ceased to seem an obtuse or awkwardly constructed novel, and as their narratives diverged, the four Archies became recognisably distinct protagonists. Despite their identical origins, circumstances beyond the Archies’ control—arson, freak accidents and deaths in the family, and, just as important, the little decisions and coincidences that have disproportionate consequences—shape four disparate young lives. Nevertheless, patterns of shared behaviour emerge and certain important friendships overlap from one narrative to others, ensuring that the reader does not lose the feeling that these four protagonists are alter egos.
As the author himself did, each Archie is born and grows up Jewish in New Jersey, near Newark. The terrain here bears inevitable comparison to Philip Roth, but the similarities do not run any deeper. For Roth, the rightful subject of a number of his many novels is the condition of the Jew herself in the contemporary ghetto, whereas, for Auster, identity is formed and earned by incident and action, not inherited as a fact of religion or geography. For instance, all four versions of Archie learn more, and are more fundamentally moulded, by the sport they play or the words they write than the religion they eschew.
4 3 2 1 is unashamedly literate, and each Archie is both a reader and a writer, though no two of them comes a life of letters in the same way. One Archie stumbles into writing as a way to deal with childhood trauma, eventually publishing a paean to his mother and the movies called How Laurel and Hardy Save My Life. Another Archie, when he swears off playing baseball, turns to covering sport as a reporter for his school bulletin, and becomes in time a young journalist who covers the mass student protests of 1968 for the Columbia Daily Spectator. The subject of writers and writing is, for so many literary authors, all too easily relied upon as sure ground, and perhaps it is so for Auster here. It is also true to say that the somewhat less than glamorous life of the works in 4 3 2 1 as a means to access a number of Auster’s pet subjects, most obviously a kind of fetishized, hardscrabble asceticism that only ever seems to be fulfilled in cramped and seedy New York apartments, stuffed with books and damp. As noted, the subject matter of the novel evokes Roth, but within the narrative itself the iterations of Archie are profoundly influenced by an eclectic range of poets, playwrights, essayists and authors, from Voltaire and Montaigne to William Blake, Anne Frank and Heinrich von Kleist.
‘ there will … be readers for whom the rather grandiose architecture of the novel will present an insurmountable obstacle to empathy’
As the Archies age, their perspective broadens, and they begin to move beyond the once-narrow circle of their influence into the tumultuous society of the 1960s, chiefly in New York but also Newark, where bloody riots razed whole neighbourhoods. As such, historical events begin to play a larger role in the novel, pricking the pomposity of Archie’s youth. He does not seek out violence, nor is he ever the aggressor, but the fever of riot and unrest that surged through New York, New Jersey and even Paris in 1967 and 1968 nevertheless enters his life as a great force. For Ferguson the journalist, the first of these cataclysms, two thirds of the way through the book, are the Newark riots. The events, and the shocking statistics in the aftermath, trouble him greatly:
July 1967. In Ferguson’s opinion, the saddest part of the Newark riots was that nothing could have stopped them from happening. Unlike most large events that occurred in the world, which also might not have occurred if people had been thinking more clearly (Vietnam, for example), Newark was unavoidable. Not to the extent of twenty-six people killed, perhaps, or seven hundred people injured, or fifteen hundred people arrested, or nine hundred businesses destroyed, or ten million dollars in property damage, but Newark was a place where everything had been going wrong for years, and the six days of violence that began on July twelfth were the logical outcome of a situation that could be addressed only through violence of one sort or another.
It is worth noting, fifty years removed from the Newark riots, but in a restless time of our own, that the state of the city has improved little.
I spent two or three nights awake very late with this book, and for hours at a time it held me in rapture. I would spend an hour cooking or outside walking and yet be affected by its influence; my perception of the world was coloured by its sense of foreboding. Yet the writing itself is not, for the most part, especially lyrical, nor is it as nimble or quick-witted as I have known Auster to be in his famous, lauded earlier work—The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace. What 4 3 2 1 offers, instead, is capacity, volume, sheer length, and though that will inevitably translate, for some, into an impression of long-windedness and exhaustion, for me it made the book one of those inhabitable works of art that characterized whole days of my life. Such books, in my experience, are few.
Image: Faber & Faber