Paul Auster has chosen a numerical title for his contender for the Great American Novel which has been shortlisted by the Man Booker judges. Here are some other numbers for you:
18– This is Auster’s 18th novel in a fiction career which began in 1982 when his first was published under a pseudonym. A major American writer with poetry, memoirs, essays, screenplays, translation and collections where he has acted as the editor to his name.
1– This is Auster’s first appearance on the Booker shortlist. (US titles have only been eligible sine 2014 and this is Auster’s first novel for 7 years.
5/1– The odds allocated by Ladbrokes for him to win the prize, putting him in 4th position out of the 6 contenders.
1.5– The books I’ve read by this author. I’m counting “True Tales of American Life” where he acted as editor and collator as a 0.5. I actually preferred the novel of his I read 18 years ago, his 1987 publication “New York Trilogy” which cemented his reputation as a writer. This was a well-written read which just missed out on my end of year Top 10 that year.
16– The number of days it has taken me to read this book.
866– The number of pages in the hardback edition. It’s not the longest book I’ve read but the quite densely printed pages and the stop-start structure of the narrative made it feel like it.
1– The number of other novels I read whilst reading this. Now, I never normally do this and it caused great consternation for me to pick up another book, but a long train journey beckoned and I’m a book reviewer and not a weight-lifter so I let Fiona Mozley’s novel sneak in, which I completed on public transport and in breaks at work, with me returning to 4321 when I got home.
1307– The number of grams the hardback weighs which explains why I was not ramming it into my bag to take to work.
It this all sounds rather flippant and as if I’m being negative, I’m not but I do have reservations about this book which Auster himself has referred to as a “sprinting elephant”.
In the closing pages Auster gives a rationale for the novel which is basically four versions of a life;
“he would invent three other versions of himself and tell their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story since he too would become a fictionalized version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson.”
It actually took me a while to work this out and there was quite a bit of flipping back in the early pages to check what I sensed were inconsistencies but which were actually different versions of the same story. I would imagine that this would make this very difficult to read as an e-book. Once the penny dropped the flipping back diminished. The actual events ceased to matter so much to me, this narrative structure had distanced me as a reader and although I was enjoying what I was reading I was quite happy to live in the present of the novel with the past and the future not mattering much to me. This is the main loophole of the novel.
I’m not adverse to these kinds of experiments. Indeed, I adored Kate Atkinson’s stop again-start again “Life After Life” (2013) where I was totally involved. Here, I loved main character Archie Ferguson but the amount of details needed to convey his lives is just too much to take in and can lead to the reader feeling a little cheated by this narrative device and to see the whole thing as artificial.
In one of the narratives Archie doesn’t last that long (which again reminded me of the many deaths of the main character in “Life After Life”) and from that point on that section of Archie’s tale is marked by a blank page. The sections do diminish- hence the title 4-3-2-1.
The four Fergusons are born in 1948 and follows childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, predominantly in the New York area. So it becomes a record of American history as perceived by someone who may or may not have been at some college or another during the tumultuous mid to late 60’s when America turned on itself with civil rights, student action, riots and over the horrors of the Vietnam war. This is why this feels like an important work- a great American novel with an epic sweep and a cast of hundreds spread over the four sections. In one narrative Auster relates:
“Ferguson understood that the world was made of stories, so many different stories that if they were all gathered together and put into a book, the book would be nine hundred million pages long.”
It does feel like Auster has had a good go at doing this!
I did feel completing this novel was an achievement (small fry compared to the writing of it) but it is far too long and involvement in it fades in and out which is a shame because it contains lots of great writing but just as I felt I was being really drawn in there was a different Ferguson to consider. This could be considered a “cliffhanger” but really it’s just frustrating in this format.
Maybe there’s an alternative read here, by completing the sections separately things that drifted away from me may pull together, but oh, hold on, don’t ask me to read it again please……………………
One final number:
939 -The number of words I have taken to try and get over some of the feelings I had about this book.
4321 was published in the UK in 2017 by Faber and Faber. The paperback edition (lighter) is out now.