“4 3 2 1” by Paul Auster – When is life too short to finish a long book?

This is my review of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

When Paul Auster was fourteen, the boy next to him was struck by lightning and died. This traumatic evidence of how chance affects our life and death has influenced his writing profoundly, and forms the basis of the mammoth “4321” which narrates the early life of Archie Ferguson, cycling through four versions at each stage.

Characters may be prosperous and happily married in one scenario, failures, even criminal, at odds with their partners, without a partner or die prematurely in others. Ferguson himself is essentially the same: baseball-loving, precociously interested in books and classical music, introspective and observing those around him, developing inexorably into a writer. Since Ferguson is born in 1947, the same year as Paul Auster, the latter seems to be playing games with his own fictionalised autobiography.

The opening anecdote is promising: arriving at Ellis Island, Ferguson’s Jewish grandfather Reznilkoff cannot recall the name he has been advised to adopt and blurts out in Yiddish “Okh hob fargessen” – “I’ve forgotten”. But by only page 150, I felt I had been reading for hours but was less than a fifth of the way through, bogged down in unrelenting detail cutting me off from characters with whom I could engage.

Without the distraction of making notes or continually flicking back four chapters, it was hard to remember which Archie I was dealing with. This was irritating although I decided early on that it does not matter, the main point of the novel being to explore human relationships against the backdrop of the United States’ post-war Rosenberg Trial, Civil Rights, Vietnam conflict history. Those over sixty-five may respond to the nostalgia of recalling long-forgotten incidents, but younger readers, particularly if not American, may be unfamiliar with references which it is assumed one will understand.

The trouble is that Ferguson is not very interesting. His life, whether in a strapped-for-cash or wealthy version, is mostly quite mundane. The rare moments of high drama, such as a death or a serious crime, are stripped of their potential by the matter-of-fact descriptive style. Perhaps it is realistic that people cannot find words adequate to the the shock over Kennedy’s assassination, . “I just can’t believe it”…. “Unreal. A city wihout trees. A world without trees”. This leaves me cold, unlike my memory of Jackie Kennedy still in her bloodstained pink suit, apparently hours after the shooting.

Not only daunting in its length – 866 pages in the hardback version, it is cumbersome to read, too heavy to take on a bus, awkward just to hold open at the right page. Using a Kindle is a solution, but then it is harder to refer back quickly, plus a typical complex sentence is likely to last for several pages with the milestone ending of an interminable paragraph rarely in sight on a small screen.

The sheer garrulous verbosity makes the book seem even longer. Paul Auster can never resist including all the examples which have come to mind, rather than refine them down to one or two. He can’t just tell you that Ferguson was painting the kitchen ceiling when he heard of Ho Chi Minh’s death: you have to know it was “in a three-bedroomed apartment on Central Park West between Eighty-Third and Eighty-fourth Streets”, and that’s a modest example of prolixity. Lists of friends about whom one knows nothing at all are tedious, those of favourite literary works just seem a bit self-indulgent, even pretentious.

I found myself comparing “4321” with Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”, the product of another experienced writer’s “late stage” work, but making the same point about the devastating effects of chance in a much shorter, memorable novel.

I have enjoyed novels by Paul Auster, and will make a point of reading some more since I have bracketed him mentally alongside writers like Saul Bellow, but “4321” lacks the vitality and verbal skill of the equally ambitious “Humboldt’s Gift”. This too has been criticised for being an over-long ego trip! I came to the sad conclusion that the opportunity cost of finishing “4321”, in terms of the other books I could read in the same time, was simply too high.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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