Book review: Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 – four versions of one life

4 3 2 1 is a hugely accomplished work, following the four lives of one protagonist in remarkable detail.

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In her 1943 novel She Came to Stay, Simone de Beauvoir has her heroine articulate a fundamental problem of existence, that of "Having to live only in my own skin when the world is so vast." In his new novel, 4 3 2 1, Paul Auster offers a solution.

Writers and readers always cheat the system a little; books allow us to inhabit identities and live lives outside of our own immediate experience. All the same, the characters therein still only get one go at life. Unless, that is, you’re Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the multi-selved protagonist of Auster’s arresting Bildungsroman.

Born in Newark, New Jersey on March 3, 1947, Archie’s life takes four simultaneous but parallel routes; small, often seemingly inconsequential twists of fate initiating a rich multitude of variables. These “endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life” thrown into sharp relief, Archie is elevated to something of a modern picaresque hero, each of his four selves strikingly different but at the same time instantly recognisable.

Certain things remain constant. His close relationship with his mother, for example, particularly notable since that with his father differs vastly depending on the tale in question. His attraction to the charismatic Amy Schneidermann who becomes in turn the love of his life; his first adolescent fling; and the stepsister he lusts after at a distance. Then there’s the significance of the written word, a different pen man to suit each of his writerly-selves: the journalist, A I Ferguson; Archie Ferguson, the precociously young memoirist who writes about his love affair with the movies of Laurel and Hardy; and finally, the experimental novelist at the beginning of his career, Isaac Ferguson.

What of his fourth nom de plume? Well – spoiler alert – one of the tales comes to an abrupt early end when one Archie dies during his teenage years. (Like many elements of the novel this is apparently based on Auster’s own experience, when, as a boy, he witnessed the death of one of his peers at summer camp.)

Auster’s attention to detail is remarkable, and each of Archie’s lives is drawn as clearly and densely as the next. As such, cutting one down in his prime isn’t exactly an unexpected move. Maintaining this level of detail for three existences is feat enough, four would have been little short of astonishing.

In an attempt to avoid confusion, the novel is split into seven sections – since only a period of 20-odd years is covered: the seven ages of Archie Ferguson’s youth – each of which is then subdivided into four parts (one for each life).

With such a strictly delineated structure in place, I found myself initially thinking of the project as four disparate novellas presented together in the form of a collected works, ‘Prolusions of a life’, perhaps – the title, taken from that of Milton’s collected early works, of Isaac Ferguson’s first published collection.

The preliminary aspect holds, but as is made clear by means of some distinctly postmodern wrangling in the final chapter, Auster’s vision is of a unified whole. I won’t give away the details, but suffice to say, it’s not the most original of conclusions.

Does this matter? Yes and no. 4 3 2 1 is a novel that somehow succeeds despite itself. The historical material – like any great American novel worth its salt, the political is charted alongside the personal – often feels crowbarred in, detracting from the work's strongest element: the richness of each Archie's inner experience.

Then there’s the prose itself, which is decidedly verbose. It’s not uncommon for a single sentence, clause heaped upon clause heaped upon clause, to run to the length of an entire paragraph. I’d quote one of the more impressive here, but I literally don’t have the space. And Auster consistently insists on telling rather than showing the story.

One can’t deny the audaciousness of such writing. No sooner than he’s lulled us into believing in the open-endedness of chance, for example, that no set path awaits us, our futures are always still to be written, he suddenly blithely undermines his own assertions with an unexpected early reveal of a set-in-stone conclusion.

Such moments provided flashes of real emotion, stopping me in my tracks, but ultimately I needed more of them. 4 3 2 1 is a hugely accomplished work, a novel unlike any other – a cousin to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, perhaps, though a distant one at that – but at nearly 900 pages, the pleasure of the pay-off falls slightly short of the commitment it requires.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.