Paul Auster’s new novel, 4321 opens with a story wrapped around a pun. It finishes, nearly 900 pages later, with the revelation that the pun is part of a much bigger joke. Relax – I’m not going to spoil the ending. But the pun goes like this: a Russian Jew named Isaac Reznikoff arrives in New York harbour in 1900. An older immigrant advises him to change his name to something more American – Rockefeller, for example. When the immigration official asks his name, however, Reznikoff struggles to recall the man’s suggestion. Ikh hob fargessen, he exclaims in Yiddish, “I’ve forgotten”, and the official duly writes down the name he will carry into his new life: Ichabod Ferguson.
4321 is a four-panel sliding-doors, butterfly-wing novel in which Ichabod’s grandson, Archibald Ferguson, who is born, like Auster himself, in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, lives out four possible lives under the command of “General Pure Dumb Luck”. Chapters 1.1, 2.1, 3.1 etc. follow one version of Archie, 1.2, 2.2, 3.2 follow another, and so on, with the whole novel bumpily chronological.
Ferguson has two dropkick uncles on his dad’s side of the family. Whether they bow out gracefully from his father’s business, scam it or worse will influence the course of Ferguson’s life. Will his teeming romantic, sensual and sexual urges attach themselves to men or women or both as he comes to manhood in the swinging ’60s? Will feisty, entrancing Amy become his forever-love, his best friend, the unattainable object of his desire, or all or none of the above? Each Archie Ferguson gets a kick along a road not taken by the others. There are constants: all have an obsessive love of reading and writing, a sense that New York is the centre of the world, and a great attachment to puns.
If you find the concept of pairing Claude Rains with Muddy Waters, Hal Roach and Bugs Moran, Myles Standish and Sitting Bull in imaginary tennis matches to be “side-splitting”, you’ll adore the humour in 4321. If you think a young man accosting a greengrocer with the line “Hey buddy, what’s with this eggplant stuff – I don’t see no egg there” is hilarious and endearing, then you’ll love the characters. The fact that I didn’t crack a smile even once in 880 pages may simply be a matter of personal taste. If it’s any guide, I barked with laughter all the way through Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, though to be fair, The Sellout is satire, and 4321, for all its self-congratulatory wit, is a far more earnest kind of fiction.
Ferguson grows up just as all the comfortable assumptions of American white middle-class society begin to crack under the evidence and consequences of racial and economic inequality. He experiences the shock of Kennedy’s assassination and comes of age against a soundtrack that includes the thunder of the war in Vietnam, the crack of police batons against bone during the civil rights movement, the smashing of glass in race riots and the shouted slogans of the student revolutionaries at Columbia University and beyond. Auster describes the social and political eruptions of the ’60s in great detail, making this fiction a chronicle of the times as well.
Auster is a master of description. Arriving in London for the first time, Ferguson – one of them, anyway – is struck by the smells, so different from Paris and New York: “a harsher, more stinging atmosphere charged with the mingled emanations of damp woollen jackets and burning coal and moistened stone walls and the smoke of Player’s cigarettes with their too-sweet Virginia tobacco…” Yet, the blow-by-blow accounts of baseball games, the meticulously recorded backstories of minor characters, the itemised reading lists, the recounting of film plots and expositions on everything from the brilliance of Dickens to the history of the small press scene in New York tend to pull focus from our already structurally unfocused central character.
The conceit of the fractal protagonist, while clever, can prevent thorough immersion in his story. Just as we are feeling worried or happy or sad for him, the chapter ends, and we’re with the next version. It is sometimes hard to recall, in the space between matching chapters, which Ferguson we’re with – which father problem, which Amy problem, which literary ambition. The experiment left me admiring Auster’s imaginative dexterity but less than involved in his protagonist’s journey.
It feels ungenerous to pick holes in such a vast and intricately woven fabric. Yet for a highly acclaimed and iconic author, Auster makes some truly odd calls, a number of which stem from what appears to be an irrepressible didacticism: translating the French phrases “Oui, bien sûr” and “Tu comprends?” into English, for example. In other places, he ascribes a knowingness to the child Fergusons that is suspiciously beyond their years: at 13, for instance, in discussion with a friend, one version of Ferguson employs a metaphor having to do with driving on the highway to a job interview and running into a traffic jam. Is this really a natural metaphor for a sports-mad kid still years away from getting a licence?
There’s more corn than in all of Iowa in lines such as that describing the poet William Carlos Williams as Ferguson’s “newly anointed favourite, who had pushed Eliot off the throne following a bloody skirmish with Wallace Stevens”. Or take the chapter in which first we’re told that its version of Ferguson will die before its end – and then Auster has young Ferguson writing a letter in which he says that there is “So much to look forward to!” Got it. Most mystifying of all, Auster quotes extensively from the various Fergusons’ juvenilia: essays, stories etc. The Fergusons themselves tend to be uncertain of their worth. Other more worldly and knowledgeable characters find them brilliant. I’m with Ferguson.
At one point, an older, bohemian woman in Paris who has taken Ferguson under her wing says, “I think you’re the strangest, funniest person I’ve ever known, Archie.” After 880 pages, I sincerely wish I could say the same. CG
Faber, 880pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Paul Auster, 4321". Subscribe here.