4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, review by Bruce Jacobs
After finishing Paul Auster’s astonishing new novel, I’m taking a rest—a little timeout breathing to look out my window at the surprisingly warm February sunshine and have a smoke. At nine hundred pages and weighing a few pounds, 4 3 2 1 is not for the weak—which is what I am these days. Weeks into post-spine surgery recovery and post-election funk, my biceps are feeble and my spirits low. Auster gives me cause for wonder and profound hope.
If you are late to this intellectual mogul of American Literature, you’ve got another lifetime of reading ahead of you catching up. Some seventeen novels, a half dozen poetry collections, essays, memoirs, translations, screenplays—Auster’s writing and curiosity have seldom stopped in his seventy years. In 4 3 2 1 he rolls it all up into what is essentially the story of a sensitive young man living out his first quarter century in the New Jersey/New York urban cauldron during the transitional 1950s and tumultuous 1960s. But Auster’s protagonist Archie Ferguson’s life is no straight ahead narrative. No life is. So 4 3 2 1 tells four stories of Archie’s life: each dipping in and out of each other; each bumping into the same family, friends, and lovers; each exalting in the love of baseball and basketball; each tackling bi-sexual deflowerings and lust; each cataloguing a library of modern literature and film; each enduring random deaths, divorce, and family re-combinations; and overall, each playing out under the dark cloud of a country gone mad with race riots, street marches, a misguided war in Vietnam, assassinations, impeachments, and police state law and order. Archie’s (and Auster’s…and mine) is a generation of young men whose ultimate live-die-or-go-to-jail decision is made by a live TV military draft lottery.
The professional book critics have been a bit wishy-washy so far: too long, pretentious, self-indulgent, insular, etc. – but they usually add a “nice try.” Forget the critics. Yes, the prose churns along in sentences that go whole pages with commas galore and rarely a break for a little dialogue dalliance. What prose it is, however! Just let yourself go, and Auster will throw you in the boat with him as it flies down the whitewater rapids. 4 3 2 1’s churn is inspirational. Little in life is linear. Happenstance gets in the way. Biology can’t be denied. Politics plays poorly with our dreams. We do dumb things. Sitting at my window, I feel nothing but gratitude for the gift Auster has given me just when I needed it. Maybe my weak arms can hardly hold this hefty tome, but it’s in my head now and unlikely to go anywhere soon.