I decided to tackle Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 as my first fiction book after YA Fest, and I feel like I went directly into the deep end instead of wading through the shallow end first. Not only is this book a door stop, but it is also not something that I could imagine anyone lugging to the beach as a light read. If you are looking for a book that will take you some time and also require your full attention, 4 3 2 1 might be for you.
The Situation: Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947 to Rose and Stanly in Newark, New Jersey. He is a fairly ordinary Jewish boy, with a father who owns and works at his own appliance store, and a mother who enjoys taking portraits. But once the story of his birth is told, the novel splits into four different stories about four different Fergusons, as he is referred to. Each Ferguson has its own distinctive and independent path. Some characters outside of his parents will appear in all four stories, while others may only be in one or two. Sometimes his relationship with his father will be close, other times it will be strained. In one story, basketball will be his sport of choice, while in the rest, baseball will be his first love. The only thing that all four stories is guaranteed to have in common is that Ferguson is at the center of them.
The Problem: Playing the what if game does not always mean that the possible outcomes will be positive. Because all four Fergusons had their life begin in 1947, that means that their adolescents must take place in America during the tumultuous 1960s. Each Ferguson will have its own thoughts and feelings and reactions during a time when it may seem like the country is ready to tear itself apart. But often, the events that are happening within Ferguson's own family are enough to keep him busy. In every story, Ferguson's uncles are not the best people in the world, but how they affect his family, particularly his father, depends greatly on how Stanley handles them. The outcome of other events seems to depend little on the actions that precede them, but instead they come out differently only because a different story is being told. Each Ferguson has his own problems, struggles, and hangups. But each Ferguson also has his own friends, ambitions, joys, triumphs, and desires.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction novel that could really be considered as four different novels, all about the same person. It is tempting to add the heading of historical fiction to this novel, as there is much detail concerning historical events in each story, and how they affected Ferguson and his simple life in New Jersey. Probably the event that dominates most of the novel, especially as Ferguson leaves high school and enters college, is the war in Vietnam, and the tensions it set off on our own soil. Every part of Ferguson's life, in all four stories, receives a fair amount of attention. But because the Vietnam War is gaining traction right at the crucial moment when the Fergusons are approaching adulthood, it is the event that dominates the latter half of the novel. But beyond the historical aspect of the novel is the ambitious approach it takes to telling the story of Ferguson's life. Each Ferguson is different from the next, which even means some are more likeable then others. One Ferguson might be relatable and sympathetic, while another may be hard to read about, and still another may not be as interesting to read about, though a perfectly nice person. The stories begin the moment Ferguson is born, and continue until the fourth one graduates college, though not all of them are granted that luxury. The novel is a study in how different our lives could be if one minor detail were changed, or if fate simply decided to do things a little differently. And *spoiler alert* the title is somewhat of a countdown clock: As the novel continues, the Fergusons die off one by one, until only one is left and is revealed to be the real story.
My Verdict: First things first: This book is long, like Infinite Jest long. But given that the novel is really four novels in one, I suppose 800+ pages is not too much to ask for from the reader. I am always drawn to a book with interweaving narratives. While the characters in each story do not necessarily cross paths with the characters in others, it is interesting to see where different people show up in the four Fergusons' lives. And of course, it is just interesting to see what happens to each Ferguson and where he ends up. If I had an issue with the novel, it would be that it often gets lost or gets a little too deep into the historical context. Or that it will often take too much time in exploring every small detail that leads up to a momentous event or decision in Ferguson's life. I appreciate knowing every minor thing that led to Ferguson doing something, but often I would rather just get on with the event and move on with the rest of the story. But the four different stories are not simply an excuse to write four different novels and put it in between the covers of one. Auster manages to bring them all together in the end and also makes it clear that 4 3 2 1 is not just four different stories, but four lives of one person.
Favorite Moment: A well-placed blank page is a powerful thing, even when you know it is coming.
Favorite Character: Ferguson's mother Rose is more or less the one constant through all four narratives, which is probably a statement about her and her steadfast nature, as well as just how important she is in the young man's life.
Recommended Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson takes the one life, many stories idea, but does it a little differently. Instead of having one life split into many, Atkinson's protagonist keeps reliving the same life, but different choices lead to different outcomes.