by Paul Auster.
Faber, 866 pp., £20, January 2017, 978 0 571 32462 0
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Paul Auster​ ’s new novel, 4321, is a lightly edited two-inch-thick Bildungsroman divided into four timelines, each a possible iteration of a single character’s life. That character is born at the end of a prologue consisting mostly of family prehistory: Russian Jews emigrate to New York and bear a child, Stanley; Stanley marries comely Rose, and they beget our protagonist, Archie Ferguson. From there on, the book is divided into eight long chapters, and each chapter into four interleaved subchapters. Each subchapter develops one possible future life for Ferguson: chapter 1.1 is on the same track as 2.1 and 3.1; 1.2 gives way to 2.2, then 3.2 and so on. Many of the novel’s characters are common to multiple timelines: Stanley always runs a furniture store, and Rose is usually some kind of photographer. There’s a snobbish Aunt Mildred, a trio of unscrupulous uncles and a girl called Amy, who is sometimes Archie’s sweetheart, sometimes his friend and sometimes his stepsister.

At first, this is all very difficult to keep track of, not because of any complexity in the book’s plot, but because, with a few exceptions, almost any event from one timeline could easily be transplanted into another without disrupting the narrative. (Mercifully, Ferguson no. 2 dies young, the victim of a falling tree branch; we’re forced to flip past his blank chapter headings for the rest of the novel.) The timelines all cover the same twenty years (roughly, the 1950s and 1960s) and many of the same locales in New York and New Jersey. Events in 4321 never drastically alter the personality of any character, and in any case personality is always, in this book, subservient to circumstance.

And that’s perfectly fine. Auster has never been interested in psychological realism. His best work is spare, structurally interesting, enigmatic and darkly comic, with characters serving mostly as variables in a series of gently intellectual puzzles. The early novels he’s best known for – the three that make up his New York Trilogy – are haunting, slightly goofy riffs on detective fiction and the writing life, a subject Auster has always striven to romanticise. City of Glass features a crime writer drawn into real-life mystery by a serendipitous phone call; Ghosts is a whimsical detective story that strives to comment on the nature of literary puzzles; and The Locked Room concerns a blocked writer who steals another writer’s identity. They read like juvenilia to me now. Auster’s work from the late 1980s and 1990s, which recycled the themes of those early books, would appear stronger today if the New York Trilogy hadn’t been published; readers inclined to place Auster among the great writers of the American 20th century have not, I suspect, digested the whole body of work. It can, at times, work a particular kind of magic, but taken as a whole, it is thin and repetitive.

One doesn’t reach for Auster in order to enjoy the expert accumulation and arrangement of detail, or the nuanced development of character; but until lately, you could count on him for neat, perplexing fiction. I say until lately because his recent memoirs, Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013), may startle fans of his writing with their formlessness and clutter, ham-handed lyricism and epic egotism. My fear, picking up 4321, was that it had been written by the imprudent, tone-deaf Auster of those two books, rather than by the one I reluctantly, thornily love.

I took copious notes while reading 4321 and referred to them often, so that I could determine, at any given moment, whether I was in the timeline where Stanley is rich or the one where he is dead, the one where Rose is a well-known art photographer or the one where she has the affair, or the one where Ferguson loses two fingers or one where he is whole; and to keep track of the enormous cast of roughly interchangeable friends, lovers, teammates and rivals that populate the various Fergusons’ lives. None of this is made clearer by the book’s jarring shifts in point of view and style. Though most of 4321 is told in the third-person limited, there are sudden opportunistic lurches into other characters’ heads whenever Auster needs us to know something Ferguson doesn’t. In addition, an editorialising omniscience occasionally appears, often during a passage otherwise rendered as indirect discourse. The result is a sense of cognitive chaos, which only clears up a few hundred pages in.

4321’s tone remains capricious throughout. At times we’re given extraordinarily dry summaries of characters’ back stories and life logistics, and matters of historical record; at other times the language is lyrical and overheated, heavy with hackneyed phrases and corny asides. A character doesn’t cry, she opens ‘the saltwater spigots’. Lovers ‘burned by the fires of a passionate love’ ‘seal the deal’ by breathlessly uttering ‘the decisive three-word sentence’, then explore ‘the complex art of tongue-bussing’. A woman isn’t merely attractive: ‘every particle of her cried out grace and beauty and goodness.’ And a marriage isn’t just over; it’s ‘deader than the deadest body in the county morgue’. The concision Auster is known for is absent; simple observations are repeated again and again, as though he planned to delete things later and forgot. ‘Rose wanted to be a mother,’ we’re told for the first of eight times in a single paragraph, ‘to give birth to a child, to be carrying a child, to have a second heart beating inside her.’ Her ambitions mean nothing, the narration goes on, compared to ‘the simple desire to bring a new person into the world, her own son or daughter, her own baby, and to be a mother to that person for the rest of her life’.

The novel is also full of very long sentences, sometimes filling half a page with lists of dependent clauses separated by commas. Auster seems to have been aiming for a propulsive narrative flow with these, but they’re rarely connected to story elements or character emotion; he’s just as likely to use them to describe the process of applying to college or moving to another state as he is to narrate an exciting series of events or shifting succession of feelings.

The style of 4321 rankles, but its themes enrage. This is an unabashed tale of baby-boomer exceptionalism, carefully crafted to shine the most flattering possible light on its characters, who are always on the right side of history, politics, social justice and art. Ferguson is always reading the books and watching the films the future will judge to have been the very best, and Auster doesn’t hesitate to list them, and sometimes summarise them, for pages on end.

Nowhere is 4321 more self-congratulatory than on the subject of race. The white protagonists of this book are morally unimpeachable; Amy, in one timeline, becomes a civil rights activist who dates a black man, and Ferguson is routinely presented with opportunities to demonstrate that not only does he not see colour, he’s bewildered by the very notion of racial discrimination. Auster introduces a girl, Rhonda Williams, for the young Ferguson no.1 to develop a crush on. When she turns him down for a date he just can’t understand why:

Because you’re white, that’s why. Because you’re white, and I’m black.

Is that a reason?

I think it is.

Later, Ferguson no.3 is heartbroken when he is told, by the brothel madam who arranges his sexual trysts, that his favourite prostitute, a girl called Julie, isn’t available. Luckily, she has a substitute for him, another black girl called Cynthia:

Black girl – what’s that got to do with it?

I thought you went for black girls.

I go for all girls. I just happened to like Julie.

That phrase, ‘happened to’, is often used in 4321 in the context of race. Amy’s boyfriend Luther is ‘a fellow freshman from Brandeis who happened to come from Newark and also happened to be black’. This passage echoes an earlier false equivalence, when, during a near riot at a basketball game, Ferguson no. 3 sees ‘the truth about the resentment and even hatred many black people felt toward white people, which was no less strong than the resentment and even hatred many white people felt toward black people’. Later, Luther and Amy break up, not because he ‘happened to be black, but that he was militantly black’. Amy no. 1 gives a lecture to a crowd of black student activists in which she asks: ‘What makes you think white people aren’t on your side? What makes you think we aren’t all in this together? We’re your brothers and sisters, pal.’ And Ferguson no. 4 bravely defends Luther no. 4 against a drunk racist, triggering a bout of soul-searching in the young activist: ‘He excoriated himself for having let Archie bear the brunt of it instead of pushing him out of the way and using his own black fist to slug the bastard in the mouth.’

Race isn’t the only instrument Auster uses to elevate Ferguson’s moral status; sexuality gets the same treatment. Ferguson no. 3 is bisexual, something he realises quite suddenly, acts on impulsively and confidently, and from which he suffers almost no ill consequences. His aunt’s girlfriend, Sydney, discusses her sexuality with him during a car ride: ‘What difference did it make if she was in love with a man or a woman?’ Ferguson replies without hesitation:

I agree, Ferguson said. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman.

Not many people think that way, Archie. You know that, don’t you?

Yes, I know, but I’m not many people, I’m just me.

Later, Sydney outs Ferguson to his aunt, who drunkenly excoriates him: ‘There are enough queers in this family already.’ It doesn’t matter, though – aunt no. 3 is left behind, never to be seen again, and Ferguson finds love and carnal pleasure with multiple women and men, until he’s run over weeks after his first book comes out.

Oh, yes. Ferguson writes a book. In fact, all three surviving Fergusons become writers. Nowhere is Ferguson’s eminence projected more aggressively than in the sections of the novel that deal with writing; each Ferguson receives praise not only for his extraordinary talent but for his edginess and outsider status. Ferguson no. 4’s Princeton adviser begs him to take creative writing workshops, but this enfant terrible doesn’t believe in them. ‘Ferguson had an inborn talent,’ we are told, ‘for jumping into deep and perilous waters when no lifeguards were around.’ Indeed, he’s planning a challenging work,

an impossible book that could not be written … and would surely devolve into a chaos of random, unconnected shards, a pile of meaninglessness. Why attempt to do such a thing? Why not simply invent another story and tell it as any other writer would? Because Ferguson wanted to do something different.

Ferguson no. 4’s work is rejected at first, in spite of his ‘remarkable talent’, because it is ‘so flagrantly uncommercial’. But the world, of course, comes around, and it’s Ferguson no. 4 who is given the novel’s greatest honour, gobsmackingly, in the scene that ends the book: he gets the idea for, and begins to write, an extraordinary masterwork consisting of the story of his own life, divided into four possible timelines. That’s right: the very novel you are now reading.

It is Ferguson no. 3’s path to success, though, that is most illustrative of 4321’s fawning admiration. After dropping out of college, he moves to Paris, where he quickly writes a brilliant memoir, How Laurel and Hardy Saved My Life, and sells it to the first publisher he sends it to. His editor, Aubrey, plans a massive publicity push:

Your book is so damned good that it deserves the whole bloody treatment. No one is supposed to write books at 19. It just isn’t heard of, and my bet is that people are going to be fucking bowled over by it … Even if you dropped dead tomorrow, How Laurel and Hardy Saved My Life would live on for ever.

‘You see, Archie,’ Aubrey goes on, ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re a person apart from most other people, a special person.’ One page later, editor and writer have checked into a fancy hotel and are having fabulous sex, ‘the best and most satisfying hours of Ferguson’s life in Paris so far’.

Sex in this novel is bizarrely described, usually in overheated, florid language: ‘love play’ is ‘interrupted in mid-squeeze’; people engage in a ‘delicious slobber of flailing tongues’ or ‘make rumpty-rumpty’ with their ‘rambunctious nether zones’. Auster is also prone to providing long lists, menus almost, of sexual acts. One anatomically bewildering paragraph gives us ‘warm bodies and hot bodies, buttocks bodies, moist bodies, cock and pussy bodies, neck bodies and shoulder bodies’. Another celebrates the many breasts to be found in National Geographic,

from the large to the small and everything in between, from buoyant, surging breasts to flattened, sagging breasts, from proud breasts to defeated breasts, from symmetrical breasts to oddly matched breasts, from laughing breasts to crying breasts, from the thinned-out dugs of ancient crones to the bulging enormities of nursing mothers.

This kind of passage appears frequently, and thanks to the book’s structure we must endure not one but three first kisses, three first handjobs, three first screws.

And yet, again and again, when it really matters, Auster leaves money on the table. He thinks up terrific plot elements and never develops them. Aside from a few glancing mentions, for instance, the novel fails to build on the disastrous family fight and subsequent car crash that claims two of Ferguson no. 1’s fingers. Or what about young Ferguson no. 3’s glimpsing, in a newspaper, a photo of the burned remains of his own father? Isn’t this the kind of thing that might haunt a person for his entire life? But Auster never returns to it. It’s as though he forgot it was there.

Generally, when a writer incorporates parallel universes into a work of fiction, it’s to explore the possibility that there is no such thing as fate, that random events might effect enormous changes. But here, the three surviving Fergusons end up doing roughly the same thing, and in largely the same spirit. Perhaps, instead, Auster merely wanted to dramatise his own formative years, using the grand sweep of late 20th-century American history as a backdrop. But if that was his intention, why didn’t he send at least one Ferguson to the Vietnam War, the era’s central conflict? Instead, all the Fergusons manage to avoid being drafted, and two of them end up attending different Ivy League colleges. Which means that the reader is treated to two separate introductions to two separate prestigious universities, with two sets of friends and professors, so that the Fergusons in question can end up becoming slightly different versions of the same writer.

Most readers will probably expect some kind of conceptual justification for the novel’s separate timelines, but it never arrives. To his credit, Auster takes a stab at it. Ferguson no. 4 (the one destined to write 4321) has a summer camp epiphany that mirrors the book’s structure: ‘There seemed to be several of him … he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves.’ Later, that same Ferguson muses that life is ‘akin to the structure of a tabloid newspaper’, in an extended metaphor that falls apart half a page later, somewhere around the classified ads. And there are a few cryptic references, delivered by the omniscient narrator, to something called The Book of Terrestrial Life. I felt certain the novel would make something of this, but it never does.

In truth, there may be a pretty good Bildungsroman trapped inside this behemoth. If I could edit it into existence, in the same spirit with which disappointed fans have reworked the later films of George Lucas, I’d start with Ferguson no. 3, the one whose father dies in the fire, who discovers his bisexuality and moves to Paris. I’d throw in a few scenes from other timelines: the car crash that claims Ferguson no. 1’s fingers, and his hours trapped in an elevator during the 1965 New York City blackout. I’d include the accidentally communist elementary school newspaper that lands Ferguson no. 2 in trouble, and the chapter where Ferguson no. 4’s mother marries his girlfriend’s father. Then I’d cherry-pick some other favourite bits, eliminate most of the characters, settle on a tone and point of view and make Ferguson die a failure.

In other words, I’d actually write the thing. Because 4321, as published, is not a novel; it’s notes towards one. It reads like every novelist’s binder of ideas: what if X happens? Would Y result in Z? The act of writing a novel involves as much elimination as it does creation. You think of the possibilities, then you abandon all but the most interesting. 4321, on the other hand, reads as though Auster just wrote down everything that popped into his head and declared it a masterpiece. Because that’s how this book wants to be read: as a virtuoso magnum opus, a tour de force of literary self-awareness. Its gimmicky ending practically demands it. Ferguson is writing 4321; thus, Ferguson is Auster; thus, Auster is a misunderstood maverick who deserves to be flown to Paris and gloriously fucked in an opulent hotel room. But no, 4321 is not a masterpiece of self-awareness. Its central failure is that it has almost no self-awareness at all. It doesn’t even know it isn’t finished.

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