A cosmic riddler offers four characters in search of a life.
BY DONNA SEAMAN
Auster has been turning readers’ heads for three decades, bending the conventions of storytelling, blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, infusing novels with literary and cinematic allusions, and calling attention to the art of storytelling itself, not with cool, intellectual remove, but rather with wonder, gratitude, daring,
and sly humor. Strands of his own experiences run throughout his novels, as do recurring
tropes, characters, and themes. Beginning with his cherished mid-1980s New York Trilogy and on to his sixteenth novel, Sunset Park (2010), Auster’s fiction is rife with cosmic
riddles and rich in emotional complexity. He now presents his most capacious, demanding, eventful, suspenseful, erotic, structurally audacious, funny, and soulful novel to date.
Auster’s hero and narrator is Archibald Ferguson, born to Rose and Stanley, children
of Jewish immigrants, in 1947 Newark. His father and uncles run an appliance-store
empire. His father owns a small repair shop. His father dies. His parents divorce and
remarry. His loving mother is a small-town portrait photographer; she is a famous,
museum-grade photographer. Ferguson attends public school. He attends private school.
He plays baseball and basketball. He struggles with unbridled lust and loneliness. He is
enthralled by Laurel and Hardy; he “publishes” a handwritten newspaper in grade school.
He’s a stellar student; he’s a delinquent. At 14, he writes a precociously knowing story
titled “Sole Mates” (presented here in full) about a pair of shoes owned by a cop. He
freaks out his English teacher. He loves summer camp; summer camp is catastrophic. He
has many brilliant mentors. He attends Princeton; he attends Columbia; he refuses to go
to college and moves to Paris. He becomes a sportswriter, a film critic, a fiction writer.
He is sexually involved with men and women. He is
obsessed with Amy Schneiderman, his friend, cousin,
stepsister, lover, and polestar. Confusing? That’s because
there are actually four Archie Fergusons.
Each Ferguson is precisely the same at the genetic lev-
el and, to a large degree, in temperament and passions.
His narrative voice is consistent, as is his fierce attention
to life, from sensuous nuance to the spinning roulette
wheel of city life to war and profound social upheavals.
But the particulars—circumstances, events, accomplishments, and losses—vary in ways great and small. Told
in alternating chapters, these four variations on a character’s life are disorienting until the novel establishes a
quadraphonic rhythm, and it becomes clear that Auster
is conducting a grand experiment, not only in storytelling, but also in the endless nature-versus-nurture
debate, the perpetual dance between inheritance and
free will, intention and chance, dreams and fate. This
elaborate investigation into the big “what if” is also a
mesmerizing dramatization of the multitude of clashing
selves we each harbor within.
Two other prominent Jewish American male writers—together, with Auster, they form
a nearly three-generational spread—have lately written loosely autobiographical, socially
and historically conscious family sagas narrated by a boy becoming a man: Michael Cha-bon’s Moonglow (2016) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am (2016). For Auster, 4 3 2 1
is his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his The Adventures of Augie March. A paean
to youth, desire, books, creativity, and unpredictability, it is a four-faceted bildungsroman
and an Ars Poetica, in which Auster elucidates his devotion to literature and art. He writes,
“To combine the strange with the familiar: that was what Ferguson aspired to, to observe
the world as closely as the most dedicated realist and yet to create a way of seeing the
world through a different, slighting distorting lens.” Auster achieves this and much more
in his virtuoso, magnanimous, and ravishing opus.
4 3 2 1.
By Paul Auster.
Jan. 2017. 880p. Holt, $32