4 3 2 1 review: the last fat novel of a collapsed American pride
Paul Auster’s mammoth attempt at the Great American Novel is tiring and self-conscious
March on Washington: Paul Auster’s novel takes in Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty
4 3 2 1
Faber & Faber
Every book that gets written is an act of insolence, in that for the time it takes to read we are asked to neglect the storehouse of canonical masterpieces whose perusal would fill any human lifespan. The suspicion of authorial presumption is stronger when the book in question is a brick of a thing, harking back to the days when folks had little else to distract them, so one may as well kick off with 50 pages on the hero’s grandparents.
Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, 4 3 2 1, begins with just such a leisurely account of its hero’s grandparents. But wait: there isn’t just one hero; there are four, except they’re all the same hero – sort of.
It’s like this. Archie Ferguson gets himself born one day in 1947 and then, for reasons that become clear 800 pages later – by which point the knackered reader may not greatly care – his life splits into four narrative threads, as in some theoretical quantum-multiverse thing. This is an intriguing and novel device, but we have a problem: it’s not that Archie Ferguson isn’t a very interesting character; it’s that he’s four not very interesting characters. No sooner have we read our way through his baby-boomer childhood, in chapter 1.1, than the clock reverses and we have to go through it all again in chapter 1.2, except differently, with fresh trials and triumphs along each of the four branches.
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This potentially tedious structure encourages deliberation on how the book is best read: linearly or in some alternative combination that renders the parallel narrative lines more digestible. Having read the opening chapter of each Archie’s life, I opted to follow the first Archie all the way to the end: Columbia University and a budding career translating French poetry. Only then did I double back to find out what Archies two, three and four got up to with their lives.
Look away now if you’d rather I didn’t reveal that one of our heroes croaks early on, his chapters thereafter marked by poignant blank pages, the heartless reviewer relieved to have one less Archie to keep track of.
There are overlaps: a girl called Amy Schneiderman weaves through the quadruped novel as if she and Ferguson are karmically entangled, and the four Archies (they’re a bit like The Beatles) abound with literary aspiration, variously trying their eight hands at novel writing, poetry and journalism.
Backdrop: fabled middle years of the American century. At times 4 3 2 1 reads like a history book that offers no fresh interpretation, complacently ticking off events long familiar to a global consciousness steeped in Yankee soft power: Vietnam, JFK, the civil-rights movement, Charles Manson, the Black Panthers.
There’s little you wouldn’t glean from a couple of Woodstock documentaries and a good old-fashioned Wiki binge. We get Muhammad Ali saying, “No Vietcong ever called me nigger”; cut-ups of iconic speeches by Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy; baseball games; the March on Washington.
Culturally speaking, we were already sick of the 1960s in the 1990s, yet Auster leads us on another forced march through a decade that has been mythologised to death. In the glow of his late-career self-satisfaction Auster has assumed the role of the US’s cultural curator, reinforcing the myth memes of an era whose vigour and success reflect his own.
This novel is thick with the cloying aura of decency and noble sentiment that has threatened to smother Auster’s work for some time. As an author he has achieved a lot, and one imagines he has much to be satisfied about. Good for him, but he seems to have lost sight of evil, malice and corruption – elements that could have made this insipid novel sharper. One craves for him to get his knives out and hurt something.
His self-conscious attempt to write the Great American Novel lacks the acerbic insight that made Jonathan Franzen’s comparably ambitious Freedom so fascinating.
Ever since The New York Trilogy – City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room – Auster has sexed up his work with metafictional devices – inserting himself as a character, stories within stories, and so on – that have led him to be grouped among the American postmodernists.
But Auster’s has always been postmodernism lite. (“Ferguson fell asleep and dreamed he was dreaming he was dead” is Auster sounding like Auster sounding like Borges.) His popularity lies not in the routine deployment of metafictional tricksiness but in that most traditional of literary virtues: he can spin a great yarn. More than any experimentalism, Auster’s deepest loyalty is to the story. And although his narrative gifts get plenty of exercise over the long haul of 4 3 2 1 the novel’s bagginess means that it lacks the moreish, gulp-it-down quality of his best work.
This book is far longer than anything else Auster has written, and that heft feels like an indicator of the stature it expects to be granted. Although there are resonances between the United States’ mid-20th-century upheavals and its present-day crisis, this is not a novel for our times.
The US as we know it died on November 9th, 2016, and nobody knows what rough beast will emerge from its ruins. Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is a throwback, a monument to a self-satisfaction that no longer holds, the last fat novel of a collapsed American pride.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book, This Is the Ritual, is published by Bloomsbury