4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

Forgive me. It’s not often I start a review with an ordinary description of the book’s plot – and as my first ever blog I had hoped to do something far more clever – but I feel it’s warranted in this case. Do you know those books where you have to keep notes as you go? Tolstoy comes to mind but I’m sure there are others (Note to self: must come back to those painful yet brilliant books in a later post). Well anyway, 4 3 2 1 is one of them and I feel a brief description is imperative if you’re to have any chance of following this.

4 3 2 1 tells the story of Archie Ferguson. We follow Ferguson’s life from birth to his early 20s. His first day of school, first girlfriend, his career aspirations, fears, partners, homes, jobs, thoughts. Everything. Only we follow it four different times. Every chapter comprises four sub-chapters that describe four different Fergusons. All the same Fergusons, with the same parents and circle of acquaintances and all with aspirations of being a writer. But very different, separate Fergusons whose life takes a series of different, separate turns: parents are wealthy but unhappy v wealthy but happy v divorced v dead; city upbringing v suburbia; ladies man v mans man; life tragically cut short v life just tragic.

Overlaying Ferguson’s personal milestones, missteps and decisions, and perhaps more interestingly, are the historical and political events of New York and New Jersey (depending on which Ferguson you’re reading) in the years following World War II: women gaining independence, racial integration, race riots, Charles Manson, JFK’s assassination, the war in Vietnam, Weatherman Underground, Woodstock, the evolution of journalism. All fascinating in their own right.

Throughout all four stories there are a couple of constants. There’s the same cast of characters but their relationship to Ferguson varies. All the Fergusons have the same burning desire – and apparent talent – to be a writer. All of the Fergusons avoid the draft in one way or another and, sadly, all of the Fergusons are painfully self-centred and neurotic (but more on that later).

In short, it’s an adults version of the old Goosebumps’ Choose Your Own Adventure except you don’t actually get to choose and rather than a fun 90 or so pages it’s an epic 1,100 pages. And it’s bound to just make you stroppy.

Now to the book itself. Auster is obviously clever. Exceedingly so. The amount of research that he’s done to place Ferguson in the midst of real life events – the Newark riots, the Columbia riots, the Blank Panther movement – right down to the date, time and street, is monumental. It almost put us there with him (or them?). And because all of the Fergusons are budding writers we learn what each of them is reading and their respective progressions from Kafka to Dostoyevsky to authors and poets I’d never heard of. We also see substantial samples of all of the Fergusons’ written work, from articles in the school paper to pamphlets, obscure translations and novels. All of these are exceedingly clever in their own right.

The problem is that it’s bloody hard going. With each subchapter a solid 50-60 pages and delving into Ferguson’s over-the-top, selfish thoughts, it’s no easy read. To be even more blunt, Ferguson is a little bitch. All of them. Maybe it’s because the self-aggrandising, woe-is-me, tortured writer act has been done 1,000 times before. Honestly, Hemingway, Milton, whichever Dickenson woman, Miller. I’m over it. (Another note to self: I recently caught that film called The Wife, about the wife of a writer who wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also a piece of work). Or maybe it’s because bloody Ferguson is too busy thinking about living his life to actually live it. I was actually thrilled when one of the Fergusons was killed off early – that must have saved us hundreds more pages – and by the last third of the book I was ready for them to be sent to Vietnam; surely a bit of time getting his hands dirty and having to care about the man next to him would have given him the wake-up call he so desperately needed, not to mention provide some inspiration for his writing. Is that too much?

Or maybe it was the (lack of) pace of the book or just it’s sheer length. It may have distracted me a little bit. By the end I stopped being impressed by Auster’s knowledge of classic books and authors but disgusted by it. I don’t know if there’s a generally accepted name for the literary equivalent of Oscar Bait – defined as those movies that appear to have been made for the sole purpose of earning nominations for Oscars – but 4 3 2 1 would surely have to qualify (and to be fair, it was shortlisted for some of the majors, including the Booker). It’s a book written for writers, or writing critics, about writers past, present and future. The literary equivalent of namedropping. Done in a very clever way but nevertheless very annoying.

Now I won’t give away the ending but I will just say it’s either genius or infuriating. It’s hard to tell. Like the rest of the book, 4 3 2 1 ends with a twist that’s exceedingly clever; I just don’t know whether I should have seen it coming or if I’ve struggled through 1,100 pages and just been punked.

Anyway, it’s nice to get an epic out of the way. My first achievement for 2019. A brilliant novel, just bloody painful. 7/10.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (2017; Macmillan)

I meant it: I really did have to keep notes!

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