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For a doorstopper, Paul Auster's '4 3 2 1' is surprisingly light

A long novel is something thought to be a serious novel. Paul Auster’s 866-page “4 3 2 1,” landing with a thud on the threshold of the nation’s bookstores, is plainly playing with that idea. Auster has not, traditionally, been a writer of doorstoppers. He is usually more elegant than that. He is also way too self-conscious a writer not to know what dropping an 866-page book means. It means it is an Important Book in the oeuvre of the author. But curiously, in “4 3 2 1” the clever, philosophical, morose Auster of his moving, sometimes surpassingly beautiful New York Trilogy is playing possum. It’s almost as though it’s been written by some other writer.

The Other Auster of “4 3 2 1” is a wry authorial presence but not a particularly interesting one. The book straightforwardly tells the story of the life of one Archie Ferguson of New Jersey and New York, born March 3, 1947. (Yes, the precision of this birthday for a fictional character is unusual. Auster himself was born Feb. 3, 1947, which suggests he’s trying to tell us that this character is not-him, but also yes, him.) Auster calls his character by his surname, Ferguson, throughout. As we’re told in the opening pages of the book, the name is an accident, assigned to a grandfather (original name: Reznikoff) on Ellis Island by an impatient bureaucrat.

Other than that offbeat origin story, Ferguson does not have any particularly remarkable powers or character traits. But he does have a colorful, full life. He has vague aspirations of being a writer. He has a lot of sex. He does a little traveling in Europe. That’s about it for the plot, such as there ever is one. This is a novel that accumulates small incidents rather than tells the story of some Big Event.

But over the course of the novel, the details of Ferguson’s more or less ordinary existence are cataloged in exhaustive detail. In fact, the sheer accretion of names, dates, places and other minutiae are the chief engine of the novel. We’re filled in on the major events of American history that occur in and around Ferguson’s life. We’re told not only what books Ferguson reads, but how long Ferguson takes to read a particular book. We’re told the names of his various twentysomething roommates even though they “had no role to play in the story.”

“4 3 2 1”’s over-inclusive spirit sometimes makes it feel very much like a particularly chatty 19th-century social novel, transposed onto the 20th. But a structural trick breaks up the pattern. See, instead of a single life’s trajectory, we are actually given four Fergusons to consider. As the novel progresses, each Ferguson’s fate splits off from the others. And so each chapter is also divided into four parts: there’s a chapter 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4, for example. One of the Fergusons — let’s call him Ferguson-2 – dies by the time we get to 3.2, so 3.2 is just a blank page. At least one of the other Fergusons — I won’t spoil the matter of which one — perishes in medias res, resulting in more blank pages.

There is a simple enough point being made by the frequently bewildering quadripartite narrative. Auster clearly believes that lives are governed by chance. Or perhaps more precisely, he clearly believes all of us contain multitudes and the particular selves that surface are the product both of inclination and circumstance. Or maybe he doesn’t. The last few pages of this novel suggest that Auster thinks that all this high-minded stuff about fate and destiny is all a joke. Or that maybe it isn’t.

If those equivocations are frustrating to read in a book review, the experience of reading “4 3 2 1” is often worse. The book is not badly written, per se, and Auster crams so much material and action in that one can’t help but be propelled along.

But even the most devoted Auster fan, the sort of reader who enjoys the struggle of keeping track in a book like this, seems very likely to lose the thread. It’s not hard to keep track of which Ferguson you’re talking about, but it’s hard to know why we must learn so much about each particular Ferguson, why every chapter is a kind of dump truck backing up to the reader’s brain and unleashing detail. And sometimes the book is so tediously repetitive it has to be deliberate, often signalling its own repetitiveness so, as in one pre-masturbatory passage:

“It was clear that the central actor in this drama was his groin. Or, to hark back to the terminology of the ancient Hebrews, his loins. That is to say, his privates, which in the medical literature were commonly referred to as genitalia.”

What is Auster up to here? After slogging through “4 3 2 1” it’s still difficult to say. There isn’t enough ambition in the narrative message to justify the page length, and all along I thought to myself: Auster is smarter than this. He’s proven it before. He’s written books that are beautifully put together detective stories, set in dreamlike cities that bear little resemblance to the real ones with which they share names. An author has, of course, the right to change interests, the right to change approach. But one leaves  “4 3 2 1” feeling tricked. The reader goes into the book believing he’s getting some serious Auster, and comes out the other end with a joke.

Dean is the 2017 recipient of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in criticism awarded by the National Book Critics Circle.

4 3 2 1

Paul Auster

Henry Holt: 866 pp., $32.50

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