A simultaneity of selves: Auster’s 4321

We humans are a messy business with our many different selves, often conflicting selves, all bundled into one body and not allowing us to sit easy because what if? 

Auster, 4321

4321 · Paul Auster
Henry Holt & Company, 2017 · 866 pages, hard cover

4321 answers that what if? Four Archie Fergusons, four variations on a theme, a concerto played in four keys – the raw materials are the same but…a tweak here, a crank there…different circumstances then, and the changes these circumstances wreak on Archie as he grows up yield young adulthoods so outwardly varied that it’s only through Paul Auster’s talent as a novelist that we can discern that each of the four Archie Fergusons is undoubtedly the same man.

Auster, ever the ingénue in novel writing, created something experimental and experiential with his recent 4321, a novel that is many novels at once. The events and people in Archie Ferguson’s life exist in each of the four storylines, changed in aspect but still recognizable: a parallel universe of sorts that alters the details just enough to open certain doors for one Archie and to close others still available to the alter-Archies.

Auster wrote the earlier chapters of each alter-Archie with the narrowness of childlike perceptions, a belief in the concrete absoluteness of this world and the openness of life’s possibilities. But with each section of Auster’s novel perception expands, absolutes crack and give way to nuance and circumstance restrains.

Outward things are secondary. There is no use in regretting anything or living in either past or future. The grass is not always greener. Money doesn’t matter much. Death, marriage and divorce; young love, whores, jail, a scholarship to Princeton University…everything is possible (“in this, the best of all possible worlds,” as all four Archies are fond of remembering Dr. Pangloss’ credo in Voltaire’s Candide).

4321 is a novel about that impossible what if? that eats at us in our less than happy moments. It isn’t that one person is punched and another is kissed; it’s that, as Archie finds, it’s the same person who is both punched and kissed and often for the same reason.

Only two gripes with this book (and really, one of these is requisite for making an honest go of it). Two divergent lines with two disparate endpoints must necessarily grow from a single point: the first chapters, 1.1-1.4, are dull, redundant and tedious. The repetition of names and events in this first section is a slog. Four Archie Fergusons had to be born. Seventy-three pages of tedium to work through for an 866-page novel of genius execution.

The other gripe is with the misplaced commentary that crops up here and there in the book’s second half. The politics surging through this novel are, usually, congruent with the story, with the nature of Archie Ferguson and with the Weltschmerz of 1960s and ’70s America. But other passages jump out as extra paragraphs written only to remind the reader in case he forgot what Auster (not Archie in these cases) thought of Vietnam or the race riots of the ‘60s. Still, more often than not, the politics align with the story and its characters.

Quiet and unobtrusive, 4321 is a master stroke of metafiction rare in contemporary literature, and Archie – each of them but finally only one of them – slowly rematerializes as Auster (or maybe Auster recedes into Archie).

4321 · Paul Auster
Henry Holt & Company, 2017 · 866 pages, hard cover

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