Review: 4321 by Paul Auster

Time moved in two directions because every step into the future carried a memory of the past, and even though Ferguson had not yet turned fifteen, he had accumulated enough memories to know that the world around him was continually being shaped by the world within him, just as everyone else’s experience of the world was shaped by his own memories, 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. The question was: What world did Ferguson inhabit now, and how had that world changed for him?

Upon arriving on a boat to the US, Ferguson’s grandfather was told to adopt a new name. Call yourself Rockefeller, a fellow immigrant said. But upon being asked his name at the desk he cried in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)!. The clerk wrote the exclamation down faithfully and Ichabod Ferguson entered the world fully grown. He married and had three sons, one of whom was Ferguson’s father who in turn married and had one son, Ferguson himself. But then things go a little wobbly. Because Ferguson’s life has four different versions, each based on events that differ in four different ways. In one life, Ferguson’s father’s business is wildly successful and the family grows wealthy which makes Ferguson very uncomfortable. In another life his father’s business is only middling successful. And in another the business is burnt down by an arsonist with his father inside, killing him. The family lives in different places, but the particulars of Ferguson’s character remain the same, shaped only by circumstance.

It’s a great idea and it has moments of extraordinary beauty and clarity. And, while a little confusing at first, stories like this tell you how to read them. I stopped flicking back to keep track of where I was after the first few chapters, and just settled in to let the lives of Archie Ferguson roll over me. Co-mingled and uncanny as they are in their similarities and differences. The story feels honest and wrought in great depth. And by the end, it really does make you ponder. What if his grandfather had entered America as a Rockefeller. How would the trajectory of his life change? And vice versa, what if he’d entered America under his own, original, name, by now long forgotten. Our lives are only partially a result of the choices we take. In many ways they are written for us by others. By accident.

This story is about 800 pages long and I received it in February after it was lost in the post. We are all subject to the whims of chance, after all. The problem with a story as lengthy as this one is that it feels long. It took me five months to read. Granted in that time I also completed my Master’s project, so I wasn’t reading in any dedicated way. But by the time I was three quarters of the way through I was beside myself. It felt like I had only ever been reading this same book and I was tired of Ferguson’s life. I was tired of reading of events in multiple different ways.

The thing is, I’m not sure Auster wanted to tell one story. I’m not even sure he wanted to tell one story four times. I think he wanted to tell all the stories that ever were. Because in each version of his life Ferguson is a writer and in each version the details of his stories are carefully evoked. Long lists are contained within these pages, lengthy discussions of movies, actors, sports games that happened decades ago. It all has a Don Delillo Underworld feel and while Auster probably would be thrilled with the comparison coming from me it is not a compliment. I found that book interminable and the only reason I finished 4321 was because I had committed to write a review.

But not entirely. Because the drawing together of the various strands at the end was artful and the overlay of the various stories, and Auster’s own voice, gives it such a layered feel. If I hadn’t finished it I would probably had given it two and a half stars but the conclusion did show the Auster’s intention and his dedication to his thought experiment. And if it took me half a year to read, I can only imagine the half a lifetime Auster put into it.

4321, Paul Auster: 3.5 stars. 

Publisher: Allen & Unwin. 

Imprint: Faber & Faber. 

RRP: $36.99.

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