Author Paul Auster © Lotte Hansen

2017 Man Booker Review: 4 3 2 1

13th September 2017

By Jill Glenn

When my colleague and I were dividing up this year’s Man Booker long list for reading and reviewing purposes, I rather wondered whether I’d drawn the short straw with Paul Auster’s ‘4 3 2 1’. Not for the anticipated quality of writing, you understand (Auster is, after all, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an acclaimed literary cv), but for the sheer extent of it: at 866 pages it’s the equivalent of perhaps three other novels. I compensated by picking the slender Exit West by Mohsin Hamid from the remainder of the list… and was very glad I hadn’t ducked the Auster. It’s epic and demanding, but it’s worth all the hours you have to give it.

Just as Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ constantly revives one woman’s fortunes in a new incarnation, and Laura Barnett’s much slighter ‘The Versions of Us’ follows three futures for one couple, so ‘4 3 2 1’ takes one birth – Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the only child of Rose and Stanley, on 3 March 1947 in the Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey – and spins four separate life stories from it. ‘A boy grows up – again and again and again’ says the flyleaf. It may be loosely grouped with ‘Life After Life’ and ‘The Versions of Us’, but its scope is far more ambitious.

You have to keep your wits about you. Ferguson’s background is not unlike Auster’s own (indeed, Auster is a month to the day older than his fictional alter egos) and the ‘endlessly forking paths’ of his four parallel lives differ from each other but not by much. They follow a track that could be reasonably expected of a bright Jewish boy from New Jersey. All the Fergusons (the narrator never calls him by his forenames, although he uses them himself) are writers, for example, in genres varying from film review to family memoir, from sports reportage to short stories; in one strand the father runs a furniture store, and in another a tv emporium; in some versions Ferguson is close to his parents… and in others, not. Paris and New York are key locations in most variants.

Characters from one reality pop up in another, sometimes in similar roles, sometimes wildly different. The Schneiderman family feature extensively in each… but in one the mercurial Amy – ‘brilliant, obstreperous’ – is Ferguson’s lover, in another his cousin, in another his stepsister. It’s all very clever, and very engaging, and very well done. You care about all the outcomes. You want both to rush on – like most of the Fergusons do, embracing the next stage of their life – and to savour each moment.

The stories are told against an impressive panorama of American history from the 1950s to the 1970s – assassinations, civil rights activism, race riots, Vietnam – with great attention to period detail, but it’s the humanity of the characters that brings ‘4 3 2 1’ alive in all its iterations. It’s about the big picture and the small; about trying and failing and trying again; about family and friendship – very much about friendship.

In a throwaway line, early on in the novel, something key is shared: ‘…paying attention, Ferguson discovered, was the first step in learning how to be alive.’ This is a book that very much rewards a reader paying attention.

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