The most remarkable ‘what if’ novel— 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
Have you ever wondered what your life would’ve been like, if, instead of the well-paid manager position, you’d lived out your passion as a writer? If you’d married your childhood sweetheart instead of that hot classmate from college who one day showed up at your door, waving a pregnancy test in your face? What if you’d visited your parents more often, noticing your mother’s progressing illness, instead of getting a phone call from your dad inviting you to her funeral? What if you had just turned left instead of right on the path of that’s called life?
If you’ve asked yourself questions like that, 4321 is for you.
An immensity of fictional ideas
I don’t want you to waste any time reading long summaries, so I’ll keep it short. If you want to go more into detail, feel free to look it up somewhere, but I would advise against it. Read it instead!
In short, it’s about a boy named Archie Ferguson — born 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, as a child of former immigrants (like Auster himself) — whom we accompany for many years, witnessing his childhood, growing up in a suburb with a nice house and a tree in the backyard, but forever in the shadows of his beloved New York, up to his adulthood. We experience first hand the history of America in the second half of the 20th century, through the eyes of a child, a teen and a young adult — with undeniable autobiographical traits that also bring us closer to Auster himself.
To finish an 8-hour workday with more than one page, is a miracle.
But Auster wouldn’t be Auster if that was all there was to it. What if? The question, the central question, that has concerned Auster all his life, like an itch that could never be scratched, comes finally to a masterly end. With Ferguson, we walk not only once, not only twice, but four times through his life’s story. Shaped through tiny decisions, brief moments that pass, choosing the left path over the right, doing one thing instead of the other — his life changes inevitably, in directions that one can hardly imagine. But Auster succeeds.
Paul Auster’s Magnum Opus — which he finished and published on his 70th birthday in 2017 — it’s vivid and fluid, you can read interminable, a stream of never-ending words that grow into sections, into lines, into sentences, and before you know it, you have to turn the page. His stream of thoughts is remarkable to follow, Ferguson, being stuck in an elevator, alone in the dark, but still, Auster manages to smoothly connect one thought to another, carrying you far away, out of the elevator, experiencing through Ferguson’s mind, until we forget where we were. Auster’s writing can be vulgar and rude, but also deep and emotional. Despite using countless words, he’s still direct and blunt, not covering up or hiding behind redundant words to fill the blank space on a page. Still, he said that for him, to finish an 8-hour workday with more than one page is a miracle.
Every word counts, every line is shaped to perfection, to let the rhythm, the music of his writing carries you through these 866 mesmerizing pages.
What to love about that novel
Do you love it when books are inspiring? Writing and reading are essential themes in the novel and it’ll show you the process of writing, the emotional deep process of it, and will eventually make you pick up a pen.
Do you love it when books are filled with other books? The writer, telling you what inspired him the most, with little quotes you will recognize, mentioning books and authors throughout the whole story, letting you grow with the character?
Do you love it when books are demanding? Demanding dedication and commitment, books you can not read while watching TV or cooking dinner — because they’re simply overwhelming and it’s a necessity to fully engage, keep track of small details, names, places, or the brand of cigarettes to get the symbolic meaning.
Do you love sympathetic convincing characters, emotional deep stories? Do you love it when books are alive, breathing, full of enriching thoughts and perspectives, with endless inspiration, full of wisdom to learn from? This book is entire life, it’s four lives actually — four parallel timelines leading you through the life of Archie Ferguson.
How to read
There’re two ways of reading this book — either from the first page to the last or skipping chapters to follow Ferguson’s life entirely from beginning to the end, repeating three times. I chose the first approach, so Auster wouldn’t hit me.
When I first figured out the structure of the novel (and because I have a little OCD) I created a timeline for all four chapters to keep track of most important events, people dying, people moving, people marrying and marked important plot twists or life-changing moments. It’s not necessary, but if you feel a little confused and overwhelmed, always with the urge of going back to check something — do it.
Also, as a guilty book lover, I definitely fell for the book ‘recommendations’ Auster made throughout the whole novel — of course, not explicitly designated as such, more like Aunt Mildred or Gil making them to Ferguson, but you could feel the inspiration Auster drew from them. Those were countless books and novels and essays and poems which shaped Ferguson (and most likely Auster as well) throughout his life. And indeed, it would take a lifetime to dig into all of them deeply.
Since the novel is split into chapters that represent each timeline (1.1 to 7.1, 1.2 to 7.2…) you could also go for the other approach, simply read it one by one, following Ferguson from childhood to adolescence four times, always coming back to the beginning. But what would be lost is the movement through time, the feeling of slight confusion, but also the feeling of arrival, of clarity, when all comes together in the end.
The reader is urged to swim with the flow, going through Ferguson’s universe(s) — was it the Ferguson who broke his arm or the one who lost two fingers, the one loving baseball or basketball, the one losing his virginity on the day JFK was killed or the one caring for the prostitute Julie, the one losing his father or hating his father, the one loving his cousin or his childhood friend, the one being bisexual or heterosexual — but what does it matter, because, in the end, they are one and the same. We all are more than just one thing. And why should we deny ourselves the beauty of all these interconnections and entanglements?
So what is this novel actually about?
To be true, it’s impossible to say, because it’s a story about life and death, love and sexuality, friendship and marriage, growing up and growing old, finding and questioning god, war and peace, writing and poetry, sports, politics and criticizing social status. If you’re looking closely you will find it all, if you invest your time to not just read but engage in that beautiful universe of Archie Ferguson.
‘…and while all people were bound together by the common space they shared, their journeys through time were all different, which meant that each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else.’ (Paul Auster, 4321)