“Everything That Happened”: Paul Auster’s “4321”

When 4321 was longlisted for the Man Booker this year, I did (as I remember it) a physical double-take. When it was then shortlisted, I was entirely surprised. In a year during which many other famous names who published less than their best work were rightly left out of the Booker running, that Auster had made it through seemed decidedly odd. The 2017 judges had otherwise decided not to give a lifetime achievement award; what on earth was this novel doing anywhere near any other kind of gong?

This opinion, I will confess, was received. I am not an Auster aficionado, and had not read 4321 prior to its longlisting. Rather, I’d paid heed, dangerously, to its reception in the literary press – and across the piste this had been cool. In some cases, the novel had received a thorough monstering. Most memorable was J. Robert Lennon in the pages of the LRB:

4321, as published, is not a novel; it’s notes towards one. It reads like every novelist’s binder of ideas: what if X happens? Would Y result in Z? The act of writing a novel involves as much elimination as it does creation. You think of the possibilities, then you abandon all but the most interesting. 4321, on the other hand, reads as though Auster just wrote down everything that popped into his head and declared it a masterpiece.

Reader, having slogged through this novel I cannot demur from a single word of this – though it might make the next few hundred words more interesting for you if I did. Many other reviewers have found themselves in a similar position: Michelle Dean in the LA Times (“tediously repetitive”), Blake Morrison in the Guardian (“the novel drags”), Laura Miller in the New Yorker (“it comes too close to tedium too often”), Lydia Kiesling at Slate (“curiously cold”): the vast majority of Auster’s reviewers have sought to understand this novel and have come instead to resent it. You begin to wonder, so complete has been 4321‘s confounding of the cognoscenti, if this wasn’t Auster’s project.

The story of Archie Ferguson, born into a New York family with an Eastern European Jewish background in 1947, 4321 breaks itself into seven chapters, each with four constituent parts. Each element of the sequential quartets follows a different parallel Archie, tweaking often very small aspects of his life in order to … not precisely map their consequences, because often those are minimal, but to document how Archie copes with the various brickbats of fate. One Archie grows up richer than the others, another in a “broken home”; one Archie dies, another lives. All surviving Archies become writers, but one is a novelist and the other a memoirist; one lives in the north part of the suburb, the other in the south; one has a mother who is an art photographer, the other watches his struggle to keep open a mom-and-pop camera store. Some characters live in Paris a bit; others don’t leave New York. Archie’s recurring love interest, Amy, sometimes breaks up with him and is sometimes his cousin. Time passes.

In one quintessential moment, Archie 4’s family moves house: “The new house was in South Orange, not Maplewood, but since the two towns were governed by a single board of education, Ferguson and Amy stayed on as students at Columbias High School, which was the only public high school in the district” [p. 567]. In other words, you can make a change but you can’t make a change. Ultimately, Ferguson stays the same because he is the same, his character irreducible. 4321 believes in nature more than it does nurture: one Ferguson’s experiences may lead him to bisexuality, and another’s may not; but he stays the same at his core – without notes and a map, a reader might plunge randomly into this novel and not be able to tell until told which Archie she is reading about. 

This is a feature, not a bug. Many reviewers have remarked upon the similarity of 4321 to Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Life After Life – and rarely in a favourable manner. While both novels share a structural tic, presenting the parallel lives of its central character and often ending them in death, the decidedly less entertaining or evocative 4321 seems more akin to Karl Ove Knausgaard in its exhaustive attention not to novelty but to detail: pages and pages of this novel list all the films and books Archie reads and watches, or the histories of characters who never appear again. The novel dwells interminably on the goings-on of the American midcentury as if aiming for some DeLillo-like definition, but collapses instead and repeatedly on baldness. Chapters begin, “On November 7, 1965, Ferguson came to the sixteenth book of Homer’s Odyssey” [p. 661]; we learn that Ferguson 1’s mother “had been reducing the number of hours she kept the studio open, from five ten-hour days in 1953 to five eight-hour days in 1956 to four eight-hour days in 1959 to four six-hour days in 1962 to three four-hour days in 1963” [p. 488]; we are treated to a full summary of Ferguson’s college career (“Freshman CC (Contemporary Civilisation-required). Fall Semester: Plato (Republic), Aristotle (Niomachean Ethics, Politics), Augustine (City of God)” … and so on, for the entire closely-typed page [p. 638]).   

And yet, and yet. Much earlier in the novel, Ferguson edits his own newspaper at school, and critiques a contributor’s writing:

Timmerman had done a creditable job of reporting the facts, but his language was bland, stiff to the point of lifelessness, and he had concentrated on the least interesting part of the story, the numbers, which were profoundly boring when compared to what the students said … [p. 193]

This self-reflexiveness cannot be accidental. However poor the execution, Auster is up to something. In Knausgaard quotidian detail is used to cast into relief, but also make absurd, the existential crises of its narrator. In 4321, the existential crises are made flesh in the multiple Archies – and yet, in the essential similarity of one to the other, still shown to be over-stated. Archie continually agonises over God’s nature and absence (“from one end of the earth to the other, the gods were silent” [p. 228]), and yet he is never clearer-eyed than when he reflects of one of many more or less interchangeable characters: “Francie had suffered […] no more or no less than anyone else in the family, perhaps, but each one had suffered in his or her own way” [p. 347]. This is true, too, after all, of each of the Archies – even the one who, pages before he dies, reflects in a little too heavy a moment of pathos that, “There were limits to what he could expect from the future” [p. 217]. Auster, in the bloated fashion of the nineteenth-century social realism which many see as the form’s pinnacle, is questioning the  novel’s reliance on character development and incident. 

Everyone had always told Ferguson that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the he hero died on page 204 or 926 [… But] Time moved both forward and backward, he realised, and because the stories in books could only move forward, the book metaphor made no sense. If anything, life was more akin to the structure of a tabloid newspaper, with big events such as the outbreak of a war or a gangland killing on the front page and less important news on the pages that followed, but the back page bore a headline as well […] Time moves in two directions because every step into the future carried a memory of the past. [p.p  427-8]

In the context of America’s current paroxysms, Auster’s depiction of its mid-twentieth century apogee as essentially recursive, even redundant, has real currency and is structurally bold. It makes sense, too, of the novel’s place on the shortlist: 4321 sits suddenly alongside Autumn‘s exploration of time, Exit West‘s criticism of modern culture, History of Wolves anti-Bildungsroman, even Lincoln in the Bardo‘s meditation on death and America. It is, though, much less successful than any of those novels: from its clumsy obsession with sex (“a delicious slobber” [p. 173]) to its weirdly literal metatextualism (“good as J.D. Salinger might have been, he wasn’t fit to shine Charles Dickens’s shoes” [pp. 429-30]), 4321 is over-emphatic, deafeningly insistent. 

From its gender politics – “the good thing about being with Julie,” Ferguson 3 reflects about a prostitute he visits regularly, “was that she never talked about herself and never asked him any questions” [p. 544] – to its consequently bizarre need for Ferguson to be at the forefront of every social movement of the period (“You’re too good” his basketball coach at one point straight-faced lay tells him, and the reader agrees but not in the way that might be intended [p. 539]), 4321 overplays its hand.  Ferguson 3 works on the COINTELPRO and Pentagon Papers stories; Ferguson 4 is exonerated in court for defending “a black friend against a white bigot” [p. 1007], wins a Walt Whitman scholarship at Princeton, and goes on to write a novel entitled 4321. Auster mistakes determinism for didacticism, yet ends his novel not as an exercise in the futility of small changes but, in a moment of real alternate history, with Nelson Rockefeller being appointed the forty-first President of the US. This is an unbalanced novel, and very often to not particularly insightful ends: ultimately we learn only that Ferguson “wasn’t a person but a collection of contradictory selves” [p. 300].

This inelegance should put 4321 out of the running for the Booker, the winner of which is announced tonight. For all that Brexit unbalances Autumn, Ali Smith’s witty and daring novel must, on the other hand, be a front runner; so, too, I should think, will be Hamid’s Exit West. In many ways, though, this year’s shortlist is exceptionally strong – the novels it gathers together, even the Auster in its superhuman breadth and depth, are uniformly controlled on the level of prose and each in their own ways impressive. In that consistency – even uniformity – it may also, though, be a little bloodless: I can’t say I loved any of this sextet in the way I did last year’s winner, The Sellout, or was transported by any of them in the way I was by 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. This shortlist is gentler than many in recent years, and, in the absence of any other sort of tumult, the winner may yet prove to be a surprise: put an outside bet on Elmet.