Gloriously Fucked

J. Robert Lennon

  • 4321 by Paul Auster
    Faber, 866 pp, £20.00, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 571 32462 0

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.

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