I studied Paul Auster at university, reading his classic The New York Trilogy and later Moon Palace. This novel is his latest, and considerably longer than both the books I have previously read by him. Last year it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, however did not win.
4 3 2 1 is split into chapters, each chapter having four sections and each individually numbered like this; 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, so the reader is able to tell which version of Ferguson they are reading about. This novel is excellent for both its imagination and its depth. This structure is very clever, as each chapter does follow a period of Ferguson’s life but with significant differences within the sections. It’s also fairly confusing as you may read about his mother’s wedding in one section, only to find that in another section she’s still married to Ferguson’s father, or read of Ferguson moving to France, and in the next section settling down in New York.
The novel is one of a number of recent novels that has played with traditional storytelling, there is a significant trend of switching viewpoints or non-linear timelines. Auster tells the story of Archibald Ferguson, well he tells of four Ferguson’s, each of whom is born to the same parents. That is where the similarities end. The structure really gives Auster the freedom to explore Ferguson as a character, he is the same character but with four different lives each changed by one event. There is the Ferguson who loses a finger and thumb, the Ferguson who witnesses his friends death, the Ferguson who writes, and many more. They are all the same character just with differing lives.
I think this novel is also excellent for its use of context, Auster was born in 1947 and this is also the year of Ferguson’s birth. This means that Auster has drawn from a period that he lived through to develop the story. Through Ferguson’s life we see the Cold War, Vietnam War, JFK, Martin Luther King and many other significant events of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Auster also uses his extensive knowledge of both American and European literature to develop different versions of Ferguson; he quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Salinger, and one Ferguson translates classic French poetry.
Auster’s latest novel is a huge undertaking, and is significantly different from any of his others that I have read. Fans of Auster may, however, even recognise some characters from other books that make brief appearences. It’s a lovely book, brave and confusing, powerful and emotive. There is something for everyone in this novel, it is definitely a long book and does take some thought to follow, but that is what makes it so good.