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 Archie Ferguson involves his relationship to his father, Stanley. The formative disjunctive event in Auster’s own life was the early, unexpected death of Samuel Auster, which not only became the subject of his first book, The Invention of Solitude, but is refracted to varying degrees through his fifteen novels and four works of memoir.
In 4 3 2 1 the filial relationship is tied to the fate of 3 Brothers Home World. In the first narrative, which reads in this aspect like a wish-fulfillment scenario, one of Stanley’s brothers burglarizes the furniture store, sending the family on a trajectory of financial struggle that nevertheless binds them closer together. In the second, the store burns down; with the insurance money, Stanley opens a tennis center, a time-consuming enterprise that widens a gulf between father and son. The third Stanley Ferguson dies in the fire, and the fourth buys out his deadbeat brothers, leading the business to thrive and the family to disintegrate.
Later Archie quits baseball because of a freak injury, or a friend’s death; he falls in love with Amy Schneiderman, who is either a family friend, his cousin, or his stepsister; he attends Columbia, or Princeton, or skips college altogether and moves to Paris; he finds a father figure in a professor, or a stepfather; he becomes a film critic and memoirist, a journalist and translator, or a novelist; he dies in a freak accident, or he lives. But because the divergences between the narratives do not alter Ferguson’s essential character, and at times even lack basic plot significance (unless you’re from Essex County, it makes no difference whether the Fergusons live in West Orange or South Orange), they often seem beside the point. They are also difficult to track, for the alternating structure means that roughly a hundred pages pass between the cessation of one thread and its resumption. The only sane response—the only possible response—is to submit to the torrent of narrative and not bother trying to recall whether one happens to be situated in the reality in which Amy Schneiderman attends the University of Wisconsin or the one in which she’s at Brandeis.
Submission is also the only sensible response to 4 3 2 1’s prose, which departs from that of Auster’s previous books. Auster has never been a showy stylist, favoring flat, declarative sentences that belie the eeriness of his storytelling. The spellbinding quality of his writing derives from the unusual mixture of narrative influences from which he draws—American hardboiled fiction, French existentialism, and what for better or worse is known as magical realism, combined with a vulnerable confessional immediacy. But in 4 3 2 1 he has taken up a new, expansive style, dominated by paragraph-length sentences that crash over the reader like waves, dousing us continually with new information, the sentences expanding to summarize an event instead of pausing to inhabit it, often extending into the future or the past. This approach favors breadth over depth, as in this sentence, to take an example at random from the novel, about Rose Ferguson’s photography business:
The fortunes of Roseland Photo were also sinking, not as quickly as those of Stanley’s TV & Radio, perhaps, but Ferguson’s mother knew the days of studio photography were nearly done, and for some time she had been reducing the number of hours she kept the studio open, from five ten-hour days in 1953 to five eight-hour days in 1956 to four eight-hour days in 1959 to four six-hour days in 1961 to three six-hour days in 1962 to three four-hour days in 1963, devoting more and more of her energies to photo work for Imhoff at the Montclair Times, where she had been put on salary as the paper’s chief photographer, but then her book of Garden State notables was published in February 1965…
We have not yet reached the midpoint of the sentence.
One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it. Auster is a conscientious host, never penalizing his reader for losing track of references or minor details, careful to avoid disorientation as he moves between narratives. The transitions are especially artful, creating the illusion that the narrative is ever advancing forward in time, even when four consecutive chapters all but repeat the same time frame in different realities. It is easy, reading 4 3 2 1, to lose track of time.
This, in fact, is the point. The passage of time is one of the novel’s central subjects, reflected not only in the sweeping sentences but in a mania for cataloging markers of time and place. Auster pays scrupulous attention to historical events, marking the milestones in newsreel prose, but he rarely dwells on them:
On March seventh, two hundred Alabama state troopers attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators in Selma as they were preparing to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge…. The next morning, US Marines landed in Vietnam…. President Johnson federalized the state National Guard….
An exception is the sit-ins on the campus of Columbia University, led by the Students for a Democratic Society, of which Amy is a member (in two of the narratives). Ferguson the journalist covers the event for the Columbia Spectator, though he is agnostic about the politics. “He mostly stood behind the group and believed in its cause,” writes Auster, “but a noble cause demanded noble behavior from its advocates.” He disapproves of name-calling. Amy breaks up with him, in one of the narratives, because he does not commit himself to the movement.
Ferguson does commit himself to literature and film and art. We know this because Auster presents us with scrupulous lists of the books Ferguson reads, the movies he watches, the museums he visits, even a five-paragraph roll call of the authors appearing on the syllabi of his freshman courses at Columbia. Dostoevsky, Thoreau, Heinrich von Kleist, and John Cage help to develop Ferguson’s conception of the world and are granted short appreciations; when he defends Kleist’s prose style, in conversation with a literary mentor, he appears to be defending Auster’s own style in 4 3 2 1. “He tells and tells but doesn’t show much,” says Ferguson of Kleist, “which everyone says is the wrong way to go about it, but I like the way his stories charge forward. It’s all very intricate, but at the same time it feels as if you’re reading a fairy tale.”
But most of the proper names scroll down the page like closing credits, only occasionally accompanied by a jot of weightless praise. Carole Lombard’s films are “splendid comedies,” Isaac Babel is “Ferguson’s number one short-story writer in the world,” and he calls James Baldwin “the best American writer,” a surprising opinion for a person of his political disengagement, and undermined by the fact that Baldwin, no sooner mentioned, vanishes from the narrative. The ideas of the dozens, if not hundreds, of other writers and filmmakers and artists mentioned are not explored or tested, so one can only guess at the reason for their inclusion. It would seem that the torrent is the point, the unrestrained deluge of trivia that echoes the deluge of the prose style and, above all, the deluge of storytelling. The approach is nothing like Baldwin or Babel, and it is the opposite of Cage; it is more like Scheherazade.
In its sheer expansiveness 4 3 2 1, which is more than twice the length of any book that Auster has published, is unlike anything he has written. Yet it is also commodious enough to encompass everything else he has written. Several times Auster writes playfully of the book of life (“Ferguson sometimes wondered if he hadn’t pulled a fast one on the author of The Book of Terrestrial Life”) and 4 3 2 1 is close to a Book of Auster, studded with allusions to previous novels. Besides the father-and-son relationships, there are various other familiar Austerities: the infatuations with New York City, Parisian culture, and old films; the stories within stories; the search for patterns in chaos; the recurring image of a disoriented man locked in a dark chamber; the bifurcation (or in this case tetrafurcation) of the self, often expressed through alter egos, many of whom share the lineaments of Auster’s biography.
Previous Auster-like avatars Daniel Quinn (New York Trilogy), Peter Aaron (Leviathan), David Zimmer (The Book of Illusions), Jim Freeman (Invisible), and Adam Walker (Invisible) make cameo appearances in 4 3 2 1 as Columbia classmates of Archie Ferguson, along with Zimmer’s friend Marco Fogg (Moon Palace), all of them “beginning writers who seemed to have the stuff to go on and become real poets and novelists one day.” Ferguson translates the same French poets that Auster has translated, visits landmarks prominent in previous novels (the Moon Palace Chinese restaurant, the West End bar), and writes a book, The Scarlet Notebook, that resembles Auster’s story collection The Red Notebook. With The Scarlet Notebook, Ferguson hopes to write
a book about a book, a book that one could read and also write in, a book that one could enter as if it were a three-dimensional physical space, a book that was the world and yet of the mind, a conundrum, a fraught landscape filled with beauties and dangers, and little by little a story would begin to develop inside it that would thrust the fictitious author, F., into a confrontation with the darkest elements of himself. A dream book.
This is a good description of most of Auster’s books.
4 3 2 1 is not nearly the most self-referential of Auster’s novels; Travels in the Scriptorium (2006), a locked-room mystery in which the room is Auster’s own mind, is almost entirely populated by characters from earlier novels, a claustrophobic exercise in performance art. But 4 3 2 1 is broad enough to allow him to discuss the principles of his own writing, and to defend them. Auster has been disserved throughout his career by comparisons to contemporaries like Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee, and Don DeLillo, writers to whom he bears only a superficial resemblance. Closer analogues are Haruki Murakami and Stephen King, novelists who share his interest in genre conventions and their subversion, metafictional loopiness, doppelgangers and evil twins, and the construction of dramatic tension through the extreme juxtaposition of the banal with the deranged.
In one of the early chapters of 4 3 2 1, a six-year-old Ferguson falls from an oak tree in his backyard and breaks his leg. The event stirs within him an ontological crisis. He acknowledges that it was stupid to have tried to climb onto a branch he couldn’t quite reach, but he points out that he had been led to that fateful decision by a series of random events out of his control. Had any of them occurred in a slightly different manner, his leg wouldn’t be in a cast. “Such an interesting thought,” it strikes Ferguson, “to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same.” Soon after Ferguson considers this idea, which is not only the premise of 4 3 2 1 but the basis of many of Auster’s novels, he begins for the first time to write.
A different Ferguson, the budding novelist, explores the same idea in a short story called “Right, Left, or Straight Ahead?” A character named Lazlo Flute, on a walk through the country, comes to an intersection. In three successive chapters he takes a different path. After a couple of misadventures, Flute concludes that “he should spend more time with other people and stop taking so many solitary walks.” His problems don’t arise from choosing one path or another but come from within.
Elsewhere Ferguson expresses his ambition to write fiction that combines “the strange with the familiar,” that “would make room not only for the visible world of sentient beings and inanimate things but also for the vast and mysterious unseen forces that were hidden within the seen.” 4 3 2 1 is best when Auster does just that—when the ground beneath the reader’s feet is spongy, unstable. The novel sputters when it lingers over what Ferguson calls the “things you already knew,” a category that includes not only the milestone historical events but the familiar coming-of-age plots and the reassuring opinions about politics and art—the screenings of Fellini and Godard at the Thalia, the “visits to the Met, the Frick, the Museum of Modern Art…”
But in the novel’s final chapters, as the plots spin out of orbit, the odd occurrences multiply and the ground shifts again. The reader suspects that the stories of all four Fergusons cannot simply meander on in perpetuity, and they don’t. Auster at last gives up his game, though the revelation of his metafictional gimmick is not especially shocking; by this point the reader has had nearly nine hundred pages to prepare. In the end Auster reaches the same conclusion as Lazlo Flute: “One road,” he writes, “was no better or worse than any other road.” But he adds a crucial elaboration:
The torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.
This explains the rationale behind 4 3 2 1’s conceit, but it might just as easily apply to Auster’s entire body of work. He began his career by wondering what might have happened had his relationship with his father been different; what other roads might a stronger paternal bond have set him on? He has since imagined other paths for himself—as a private detective, a fireman turned amateur gambler, a St. Louis orphan born in 1915, a mongrel dog with a human consciousness, and various New York writers much like him, who are visited by mysterious strangers.
If every person, like Ferguson, has “several selves inside him, even many selves, a strong self and a weak self, a thoughtful self and an impulsive self, a generous self and a selfish self,” then self-knowledge lies in the promiscuous inhabitation of multiple identities. Among these many paths for the self are those not taken—“the shadow people” that we imagine we could be, if only we had a little more courage, or strength, or wisdom. “The world as it was,” as Auster puts it, “could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t.” Whether one finds his fiction exhilarating or maddening depends on whether one accepts this mystical view of human experience. Reality, to Auster, is itself an interlocking chain of alternative realities.
Auster’s approach stands in opposition to the conventions of most serious contemporary fiction, which attempts to plunge deeper and deeper into the soul of a character, revealing the contradictions, usually irresolvable, that lie within. Auster instead travels outside of his characters, into parallel universes populated by shadow people and doppelgangers who, by choice or chance, find themselves thrust into worlds that “could have happened but didn’t.” One might not want to visit those worlds, might consider them a frivolous distraction, but for willing travelers there is no more congenial guide to this marshy terrain. Though 4 3 2 1 is not the most successful example of Auster’s project—it is too heavily weighted with the familiar, too stingy with the strange—it offers the clearest explication of his sensibility. Alternative realities have their uses, and for more than escapist fantasy. It takes a strong imagination to see the world as it isn’t. It takes an even stronger imagination to see the world as it is.