By Paul Auster
880 pages, $32
Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years arrives as a literal (it’s large) and metaphorical big deal, because he’s the real deal: a prize-winning major figure in contemporary American literature, while not a household name — if in the brave new world of 21st century America it’s possible for any literary writer or fine artist or non-pop musician or scholar-intellectual to be a household name. “4321” is a meticulously rendered series of four worlds all produced from the same DNA: that of a New Jersey kid named Ferguson, whose story is told four times, in four lives. It’s a rich premise, the potential of which is richly embodied in the book. But, with trepidation and the understanding that many may disagree, a question rises and must be humbly offered, kneeling before the throne. Why?
Maybe a better question is, what does it add, what new things does it bring to the very familiar people and events and scenery and culture and objects and atmosphere that are the material for this created world?
“4321” travels an extraordinarily already-well-trodden literary path: the myriad stories depicting the “coming to America” and American Dream saga of European immigrants to the Northeast around the turn of the 20th century and the history of one such upwardly mobile non-practicing Jewish family and the coming of age of a white New Jersey-New York comfortably off Baby Boom boy, and the Dutch master-like rendering of mid-20th century U.S. history and mainstream American middle class culture, with the novel ending in 1972.
“4321” brings to mind Barry Levinson and Ron Howard and on occasion Steven Spielberg; in the sense of lighter (in all senses), more airbrushed Hollywood versions of America, in making worlds where the worst that happens is workable eventually and underlain by an inchoate buoyancy, that buoyancy perhaps underlain by things that can’t be spoken of without wandering into tricky territory: the privilege inherent in being white and middle or upper class in America.
“4321” is a capacious, humane, and insightful literary work, and is an ambitious and daunting project successfully put between covers by a skilled and important artist. However, there are problematic meta-issues with this work and they’re big: the content and the writing.
“4321” is four separate narratives, a countdown springing from a thought many of us may have had in daily life: the alternative lives one might have led if things, from the small to the momentous, had happened differently.
The novel explores the forking paths of alternative lives for Ferguson — through deaths, accidents, mistakes, money problems, relationship issues, family issues, school and adolescence, college, love and sex, World War II, Vietnam, civil rights, campus unrest, all woven along the spine of the always fascinating process of human maturation — growing up. We get to see Ferguson sprout and grow four times.
However, the texture of the private lives lived has been explored before. Do we really need to hear again the un-ironically presented story of a sheltered suburban white young person discovering that parents are people too, that love is difficult, that society and other powerful institutions can be hypocritical, corrupt, and ruthlessly cruel, that having and getting money is complicated; or about a young white '60s teen discovering blues and jazz; or about an athletically inclined teen discovering writing and books; or about a lonely latchkey child discovering the movies? These things are presented with reverence and care and honor and honesty, but we’ve really seen this kind of thing a lot at this point.
Ferguson’s universe of family and friends is the same through all four versions of his life, but his and their pairings and roles and fates are not all the same. However, what is the same, among him and his friends for example, is that all are ambitious smart kids with plans and opportunities existing de facto for them and all are attending top level universities. As the narrative voice says, about a specific period here but in a statement more broadly applicable, “Many intolerable things occurred … but not to them, not directly to them.”
In addition, Ferguson has luck, at key moments that ameliorates the private and public tragedy and catastrophe that crop up, including Ferguson’s intersections with race and social class in America and the Vietnam War. Whatever happens, his -- and their -- boat keeps bobbing along, but certainly not without real pain and existential darkness along the way. So the arc of the various stories begins to feel a little arbitrary.
Then there’s the the writing. There’s a skilled but utilitarian, expository quality to the voice, even to the point of using foreshadowing (“more about that later”), and clichés (people are “out and about”) and words like “shenanigans” used un-ironically, all as a kind of short-hand to telegraph information quickly so the narrative can keep moving. And while self-examination by literary narrators in fiction are what it’s about, here that self-examination becomes so elaborated and repetitive in terms of ideas and emotions that it crosses the line into redundancy too often.
In what is admittedly a very subjective kind of criticism, once Ferguson reaches teen-hood, the characters and friends and assorted adults when speaking often sound a little stiff, and things intended to convey humor don’t make it all the way to being funny. Making characters speak in ways that sound like real people is difficult, and it’s not always true that dialogue is a problem. But a little too often, it is.
Writing a novel is not an instrumental, conscious process; the writer writes because she or he has no choice, is compelled, obsessed to some degree. So this book had to exist from Paul Auster’s view, and that is enough of a reason. Once an art work is set loose in the world, it is a message in a bottle, meant for whomever picks it up. However, this message may or may not resonate or make sense or be interesting to beachcombers who find it. Some may welcome “4321” but others will regretfully throw it back in the ocean, for someone else to find.
Ed Taylor is a teacher and freelance critic and the author of "Theo."