Recent history has done a nice job of preparing readers for a novel about alternative realities. There were signs as early as November 2015, when a Caltech cosmologist discovered evidence of a parallel universe impinging on our own, that we had passed into a paranormal realm—that, while we were amusing ourselves in the dining car, an impish railway signal operator had pulled a switch and the locomotive had veered off the straight track, diverging into increasingly fantastical territories. Subtler, more benign indications included the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, the unprecedented reversal of stratospheric wind patterns, and hundreds of sightings of menacing clowns luring children into the woods. But the election as president of a menacing clown, abetted by white supremacists and Russian espionage, confirmed that we had entered a reality that has already outpaced the most brazen conceits of speculative fiction—a reality of rather slipshod design, the kind of world you might expect to have been thought up by a teenager with only the most sophomoric understanding of dramatic irony, the perils of cliché, and the importance of narrative plausibility.
None of the four braided alternative realities in Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is nearly as hamfisted as our own. If anything the novel is distinguished by the surprisingly muted exploitation of its high-concept premise. An unprepared reader may not even grasp the nature of the premise for at least the first fifty pages, which unfold like a traditional bildungsroman, tracing the ancestry, birth, and early childhood of the principal character, Archibald Ferguson, born on March 3, 1947, at Beth Israel, a second-generation American Jew whose father and uncles run a furniture and appliance store called 3 Brothers Home World. All but the most attentive readers—those who might notice, in the third chapter, that Montclair, New Jersey, has mysteriously morphed into Millburn, New Jersey, that the father’s blue DeSoto has become a bottle-green Plymouth, or that Aunt Mildred suddenly lives in Chicago instead of Berkeley—may not get the picture for another dozen pages or more.
Eventually, however, it becomes clear that Ferguson is not one boy but four, each living in a slightly different reality. In his various incarnations Ferguson’s character is remarkably consistent. He is devoted to his mother, dreams of becoming a writer, is a fine baseball player, reveres women (and also, in one of the plots, men), and has irreproachable, if fairly conventional, taste in literature and film. But the circumstances in which he finds himself vary—slightly. Unlike most novelists who experiment with the premise of parallel universes (recent examples would include Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us), Ferguson’s lives do not fork at a decisive moment. They diverge gradually, four stalks sprouting from a common bulb.
Auster loyalists will be unsurprised to discover that the closest thing to a formative disjunctive event in the lives of…
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