Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is the Goliath nominee of this year's Man Booker Prize. At nearly 900 pages, it is not only long, it is unnecessarily long. Though Auster has quite a lustrous career behind him, he takes this opportunity to write a novel that sounds like an undergraduate's wet dream project: a “what if” in the life of a young man; four tellings of the same protagonist in the same setting, but with four different outcomes. It's an ambitious project and though its premise sounds a bit juvenile, I think it could've been done well if done differently. Surely, Auster's skill with weaving words has lifted 4 3 2 1 far above being a mere adolescent traipse through history. Sadly, though written with love and precision, it doesn't rise far above this status.
Contrary to what one might expect, there are no catalysts for the detours in young Archie Ferguson's lives. In the opening passages, I was looking for one and was sort of disappointed to miss it. The fact is, the world is simply different for Archie. In one world he lives with his mother and father, in another he's with his mother and step-father. These differences are not presented as being the outcome of choices a young Ferguson made, they just are. And so, one might assume, there are differences in each of the worlds surrounding the four Fergusons, but no the only difference is Ferguson and those he touches. It's as though the world revolves around Ferguson. That's a lot of pressure on a young man. And so, the 1950s and, to a larger extent, the 1960s roll by one time, two times, three times, and four, all without hitch or pause. Though Archie's life has changed drastically, nothing else has: Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, Nixon, King. Ironically, despite the four different paths that vary, Ferguson ends up okay in each one. I mean, you'd expect one of the Archie's to be a raging racist or something, but no, Ferguson always has the foresight to be a proponent of civil rights and that makes him swell. If you can't tell, I guess I'm not that big of a fan of Ferguson. I mean, I spent 900 pages with Archie-Alpha, -Beta, -Gamma, and -Delta—you'd think I'd like the guy a bit more. But Ferguson didn't challenge me or evoke any feeling from me. He was sort of a whiny, privileged kid (even when he wasn't so privileged).
The writing was fine. Before I started to feel bitter about the novel, I felt pulled in to the presentation. I could see myself enjoying a shorter, more focused Auster novel. But at some point, I began to realize this was more of a meandering mess than I cared to wrap myself in. There's so much detail about the lives of the four Fergusons. One begins to wonder if it isn't a bit much, especially when Auster goes on a twelve-page summary of fourteen-year-old Ferguson's short story about talking shoes called "Sole Mates." Was the story important to 4 3 2 1? Yes. Did we need a full summary of the story? Absolutely not. A standard sized paragraph would've been more than was needed. But twelve long pages? Later, Ferguson ponders British actors that starred in Hollywood films. He makes a list in his notebook. And we're blessed with the complete list, all seventy names. These are the sort of things that make this book 900 pages and there was absolutely no need for it.
It may sound like I hated this book and wish to destroy its happiness. I didn't hate it. 4 3 2 1 is a competent epic and it surely has an audience. Personally, I tend to love large books because of the complete stories they often tell. But 4 3 2 1doesn't tell a complete story. Most of the novel covers the lives of the Fergusons in the sixties. And when you divide this by four storylines, you're really only getting four average sized novels rehashing the same decade. And really, what was the point of it all? You expect there to be a catalyst or some revelation in the end that ties the four lines together. But no. JFK is still shot. Students are still murdered on college campuses. But Archie Ferguson gets to decide if he wants to climb a tree or not.
Sadly, the longer this novel went on, the less I liked it. I just didn't buy Ferguson's lack of freewill. It's obvious that his social and political stances are being shaped by the author. Despite leading four very different lives, young Ferguson can choose who he wants to fall in love with, but doesn't get to choose which side of politics to be on.
Recently, Auster admitted that he struggles with ideas these days: “I used to have a backlog of stories, but a few years ago I found the drawers were empty. I guess I’m getting to the point where I tell myself if I can’t write another book it’s not a tragedy.” I think he was grasping for an idea with this one. And though it obviously caught the attention of the Man Booker judges, I was not impressed. That said, my interest in Auster has been piqued and I definitely would love to read some of his earlier, shorter works. Just think, perhaps in another life I thought this was the greatest book ever written.
Man Booker Prize 2017:
I'll be a little surprised if this one makes it to the shortlist. It's not particularly relevant right now. It's not enjoyable to a mainstream audience. It's not all that original or brilliant. It's competent and capable, which is why I think it was fine to be included on the longlist, but it doesn't strike me as an eventual winner. Frankly, it feels a bit too much like the old, east coast white male perspective that has dominated literature for decades. I hope these authors continue to write their stories and that we continue to read and enjoy them, but their time of being celebrated as “the best” has come to a close. It's time to honor fresh ideas, styles, and perspectives.