Four into one doesn’t go… for Paul Auster’s latest character

by John Boland

Fiction: 4321, Paul Auster, Faber & Faber, hdbk, 880 pages, €16.99

While Paul Auster’s latest tome is full of his trademark trickery, there’s little to ignite interest in the four versions of the main character.

Anyone who’s at all familiar with Paul Auster’s work will know that it’s full of trickery. Ever since The New York Trilogy, the novel that made his reputation in 1987, his books have been playing metafictional games – offering detective stories that are really about something else, introducing characters who go by the author’s own name but may not be him, or devising sudden contradictions of what he’s previously declared to be true.

Whether you find such narrative play-acting tiresome or fascinating is up to you, but Auster has always been the darling of an international literary set that likes its literature to be in the avant garde European mode, and that laps up his knowing nods to Barthes, Beckett, existentialism and absurdism.

This may account for the fact that he’s always been a more revered name on this side of the Atlantic than among American readers. Indeed, he and his equally high-profile wife, novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, remain among the most chic and admired couples in French and other European literary circles.

Not everyone, though, has been impressed. The influential critic James Wood has written disparagingly of Auster’s “fake realism and shallow scepticism” and of how “accidents visit the narrative like automobiles falling from the sky” – a reference to Auster’s favouring of chance and coincidence as determining factors in the lives of his characters.

Chance and coincidence feature prominently in his mammoth new novel, 4321, which runs to almost 900 pages of dense type (probably the equivalent of 1,200 pages in more generously spaced typesetting) and employs a structural device that may lead to puzzlement among unwary readers.

Indeed, the book baffled even such a distinguished literary critic as John Sutherland, who – reviewing it in last weekend’s Times of London – fretted about narrative inconsistencies and declared himself unaware, until he got to page 862, that it wasn’t just the story of a young man but four different versions of it. Plainly, he never got around to reading the dust jacket, which states that the character’s life “will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths”.

This is not to say that the book isn’t initially confusing, but when you eventually clue into the fact that the chapter heading “1.1” concerns the first Archie Ferguson, that “1.2” concerns the second Archie and so on, it all begins to make sense.

A pity, though, that the various narratives aren’t more interesting or, indeed, even that different from each other. Yes, one young Archie has sexual relations with alluring neighbour Amy, while another doesn’t. Yes, one goes off to live in a Parisian garret, while another studies at Columbia and a third at Princeton. Yes, the father of one Archie dies in a malicious fire, while the others don’t. And yes (spoiler alert) one is killed in a freak lightning accident, a fate that the young Paul Auster himself narrowly escaped.

It’s not helped by the fact that all of the four Archies are almost too good to be true – wish fulfilments, perhaps, of Auster himself, who, like the various Archies, was born in New Jersey in the spring of 1947 to Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.

Of one Archie, we’re told that there were “few people in the world as sweet as he was, as loving as he was”, while another had an “overall gentleness of spirit”, a “contempt for big-dollar American greed” and an “unstinting love for the people he cared about”. And, almost needless to say, all of them are idealistic writers (whether journalists, critics or novelists) with impeccable liberal values.

“I feel I’ve waited my whole life to write this book,” Auster said in a recent interview, while also describing it as “the biggest book of my life”. It’s certainly that, not just in length but in ambition and scope – taking in the rise and assassination of the young Archie’s adored JFK, student protests at Columbia (in which the author himself participated), the civil rights movement and the catastrophe of Vietnam – and it’s at pains to show how people are shaped not just by their own drives and circumstances but also by public events.

All of this is narrated in a style more elaborate than readers of Auster’s earlier books may have come to expect. Paragraphs frequently run over two or three pages, and lengthy sentences are so crammed with subordinate clauses that the reader may feel like taking a deep breath before embarking on them.

And then there’s the problem of the four Archies, each of them too nice to be really intriguing, and all of them a bit too samey to have any real impact. Indeed, for much of the time, I kept forgetting which particular Archie I was currently reading about and had to keep referring back to the chapter numerals to enlighten me.

And while the underlying motif of “What if…” is arresting (what if Archie hadn’t sought shelter under that tree, what if he hadn’t met Amy and fallen in love with her, what if he’d never gone to Princeton or Paris?), the reader is mostly left pondering the elements of chance in any individual’s life rather than actually feeling its impact on Archie’s life.

That’s because Auster has always kept himself at a somewhat cool distance from his creations, though in his life he’s clearly capable of passionate commitment, taking a public stance against Turkey’s repression of writers and expressing his despair at the election of Donald Trump: “I feel utterly astonished that we could have come to this,” he said recently, “the most appalling thing I’ve seen in politics in my life.”

But his literary coolness provided its own pleasures in the best of his determinedly clever fiction, including New York Stories, The Music of Chance and Oracle Night. However, in a book that, despite its intricate format, adopts a much more traditional approach to narrative and character, it’s hard not to feel that something a little more heartfelt wouldn’t have gone amiss.

That seems to be promised in the book’s introduction to Archie No 1, where the opening sentence reads: “His mother’s name was Rose, and when he was big enough to tie his shoes and stop wetting the bed, he was going to marry her.”

But the Archie that mainly interests Auster is the teenager and young man who seems to mirror his own liberal and literary longings, and he’s a somewhat stock figure in all of his four incarnations.

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