Paul Auster's '4 3 2 1' Has Flashes of Brilliance But Doesn't Transcend Its Genre
The four lives of Archie Ferguson do not add up to more than the sum of their parts.
4 3 2 1Publisher: Henry Holt and Co
Length: 880 pages
Author: Paul Auster
Publication date: 2017-01
One of the most acclaimed episodes of the television show Community (2009-2015 NBC; 2015 Yahoo Screen), “Remedial Chaos Theory”, uses the quirky concept of the “choose your own adventure” narrative and exemplifies one of the best examples in popular media of constructing a story around diverging yet parallel plotlines. The roll of a die during a party determines which of the seven characters has to leave the room to pick up the recently-delivered pizza; in turn, the episode demonstrates how exactly the rest of evening plays out seven different times, depending on which of the seven friends is chosen at random to get the pizza.
The combination of the element of chance and watching how the group interacts with one another in seven different ways is key to making each timeline distinct and engaging. Most importantly, the decision made by the group to determine who has to leave by rolling the die is the most important factor leading to the split of timelines, rather than the actual randomness generated by the die, because it demonstrates that what happens in our lives, and the significance of these events, is not only due to chance, but to the choices we make, and how these choices ultimately tell us who we are.
I bring up this episode of Community because I couldn’t get it out of my mind while reading Paul Auster’s newest novel 4 3 2 1, which tells the story of Archie Ferguson, a young Jewish American growing up during the '50s and '60s, four different ways, beginning with his birth in Newark, New Jersey in 1947. Four timelines are interwoven through the book’s almost 900 pages, each delving into Ferguson’s (as he is referred to) experiences growing up in four different ways, rotating through stages detailing various phases of maturation. Small differences at the beginning of his lives, such as the relationship between his parents, his familial affairs, his friendships, and his interests in hobbies soon expand and balloon into vastly different sagas, affecting where he lives, where he goes to school, the kind of career he pursues, and the people with whom he falls in love.
Yet Ferguson himself remains generally constant across his four lives, even though not all of them progress equally far: he loves sports and writing, though which sports and what kind of writing diverge across timelines; he's passionate about ideals of goodness, equality, and justice during the turbulent political situations that occur over his lives. His lives are always, always enhanced by the presence of a girl named Amy Schneiderman: sometimes she's a friend, sometimes a lover, sometimes family, but she's one of the eternal elements that holds true across all four timelines, regardless of how they end.
It’s a totally fascinating concept that Auster has utilized in 4 3 2 1, to be sure, but as I continued the story, finding different moments of where I was charmed, heartened, and even emotionally affected across Ferguson’s four lives, my mind kept going back to “Remedial Chaos Theory” and how this single 23-odd minute segment of television made far better use of the tool of diverging timelines than a book that stands at 880 pages. Namely, 4 3 2 1 fails to use the clever premise of having four competing narratives interwoven with one another by completely neglecting the crucial element of choice in Ferguson’s lives.
Essentially, the vast majority of differences, both dramatic and small, that occur across Ferguson’s four lives are generated by actions outside of his control, rather than involving any decisions he makes. Having moments when Ferguson’s life diverges at perpendicular points explored in the four timelines, allowing us to see how Ferguson’s life would have changed as a result of his actions, we see Ferguson largely pulled along by the current of the events surrounding him. Indeed, the timelines diverge so early on from one another, and so potently at that, that there isn’t much of a point of comparison across Ferguson’s lives, and no real way to gauge the person Ferguson would have become had he only chosen option A instead of B, or vice versa.
“Remedial Chaos Theory” played with the randomness of the roll of a die, yes, but it also allowed us to see how characters we already knew would interact given a wrench thrown into their dynamic of one of the seven friends leaving the room. With the exception of his decision to eschew college entirely in one of the timelines in order to pursue his own independent writing career, Ferguson isn’t given opportunities to choose actively, and thus he remains the same person across four different lives.
I understand that Auster is likely using that element of consistency to make some kind of argument that who we are is something essential and immutable despite our circumstances, despite our joys and our moments of suffering, but without giving Ferguson agency and thus the ability to be different from one timeline to another, it became difficult at times to figure out which timeline I was even reading. I would have to try and figure out which of Ferguson’s lives I was reading about based on context clues rather than using Ferguson himself as a gauge. As 4 3 2 1 draws to a close, it becomes even less clear why Auster chose to tell Ferguson’s story four different ways, rather than three, five, or any other number greater than one, which makes the entire formal premise of the novel seem artificial and arbitrary.
If we set the premise of 4 3 2 1 aside, what's left is a collection of genuinely exciting and downright banal episodes in Ferguson’s lives. The fairly long digressions into the lives of Ferguson’s family members at times almost read like something out of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002), but in 4 3 2 1 they are just that -- digressions -- rather than elements of foreshadowing and later significance as in the Eugenides. The prose of 4 3 2 1 is functional, albeit generally uneven. There are, however, extended passages and sections about Ferguson’s activist sentiments, or about his talent for storytelling flowering in Paris, in New York, in New Jersey, that are marvelous. I found myself wishing that I was reading one of Ferguson’s stories, such as “The City of R.”, because it sounded more interesting than the existing text.
Yet moments that do end up being significant regarding Ferguson’s choices, such as his decision in one of his lives to shoplift (and the ensuing fallout), are given shorter shrift, and fewer pages, than more pedestrian moments of tween-age ennui. Most gratingly, because we see Ferguson go through adolescence multiple times across multiple timelines, Auster has unfortunately taken that to mean that we have to read about Ferguson going through puberty, and discovering sex, multiple times. For the sake of verisimilitude, I guess, all novels that involve boys coming of age have to go into some nauseating detail about bodily functions, but after Philip Roth's Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) laid it bare, is there really anything more to be said on this subject?
The question of whether I found a book to be worthwhile is gauging my desire, upon finishing it, to immediately flip back to the first page and relive the adventure all over again. 4 3 2 1 did not inspire this ritual. Ultimately, the novel doesn’t fulfill the promise of its premise, and the moments when I was genuinely excited by the twists and turns of Ferguson’s lives were outnumbered by the moments of plowing through inelegant writing that could have used another pass at the editor.