4321 – Paul Auster (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review



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.



City On Fire – Garth Risk Hallberg (Jonathan Cape 2015)


The first thing I need to tell you about this book is that it’s long – 944 pages.  That’s not such a bad thing, with winter approaching, hunkering down and losing yourself in a long book is to be recommended.  That is – if the time invested in reading so many pages is rewarded and with this much anticipated novel I’m not absolutely convinced it is.

I was drawn to this book by its setting- New York, spanning primarily from the end of 1976 and working towards a big set piece for the city, the night the lights went out – July 13-14th 1977 when a localised total blackout led to looting, arson and panic in the streets.

This, however, is no “disaster” novel.  It is very much character led and at the centre is William Hamilton-Sweeney, troubled son of a millionaire businessman, who disappears from family life on the eve of his father’s remarriage and reinvents himself as an artist and as Billy Three Sticks, a musician in underground punk band Ex Post Facto.  At the start of the novel William is in a relationship with Mercer, an African-American not long up from Georgia who is working in a girls private school.  This mismatched gay couple are strongly characterised.  In fact, for me the most successful aspect of this novel is its characterisation.  For a work with an epic sweep and ambitious scope the cast of characters is smaller than you would imagine and I know that I have spent a lot of time recently in their company but I do feel they will linger with me when I move on to other (shorter) books.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day an incident occurs in Central Park which will have ramifications for all the characters from the wealthy in the Hamilton-Sweeney offices to the anarchic Post-Humanist punks living their drug-induced lives in a commune where revolution is being plotted.  There’s a Police investigation and an intrepid journalist and, importantly, there is the character of New York itself, simmering away as a general air of disgruntlement during the time when punk and disco overlap, where drugs, probably for the first time infiltrates all levels of society and the loss of power over one night will change lives forever.

I wanted this book to be an unqualified success but it isn’t.  It has the tendency to suck the reader in and then spit back out.  There’s some really engaging writing and a real zest for language.  I lost count of the number of new words I had to look up, but there’s also great chunks of frustrating uneventfulness which might suggest overall that the author was not quite ready to guide us through a book of so many words.  I did feel that, at times, there’s a great shorter novel waiting to explode from this mammoth one, but thinking about it once completed I am not sure what I would cut.  There are occasional interludes away from the plot, including journalistic pieces and fanzines, but these often contain some very good writing and do have a bearing on outcomes.

I do think many readers will get left by the wayside with this novel.  The blurb compares it to the TV series “The Wire”, a comparison I cannot fathom apart from its structure.  I know that this book will divide critics and it has certainly divided this one reviewer as I am still not totally sure of my opinion of it. However, film rights have been sold and there has been an initial $2 million publishing deal, a six figure deal in the UK where the editor apparently called it “the best American novel I’ve ever read on submission.”   Whether this “publishing phenomenon” will sweep this country remains to be seen.  For me, it is a bold, ambitious work which is good rather than great and might not live up to the hype being built up around it.  I have wavered between the 3 and 4 star rating throughout the reading of it but because of its magnitude; because I think elements of it will remain with me  and because of  the sense of achievement I am feeling in completing it I am opting for four stars.



The City On Fire will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on 22nd October.

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin (Jonathan Cape) for providing a copy for review.