It’s almost Booker time, so I thought I’d post my review of one of the shortlisted novels, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 (Faber). The piece originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post Magazine back in February of this year. Bonus content: I also hated another of the shortlistees, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.
“First thought, best thought,” wrote Jack Kerouac, offering perennial encouragement to the sort of writer who never has any thoughts at all. Since anyone’s first thought about anything is likely to be a cliché, the business of literature should be to look for the last thought – or, at the very least, to declare war on the stock response.
Paul Auster is a first-thought writer who has somehow acquired the reputation of being a deep-thought writer. Early in his career – with the three arid metafictions that make up The New York Trilogy (1985-6) – Auster adroitly surfed some of the less gnarly waves of literary postmodernism. In thirteen further novels – most recently Sunset Park (2010) – he has riffed repetitiously on a small handful of themes: existential dread, the randomness of life (a 1990 novel is called The Music of Chance), the burden of being a writer. Auster’s novels are samey: a male narrator, usually a writer or a writer-substitute, muses on the accident or the crime (or the accidental crime) that knocked his life off-course. Lately Auster’s reputation has ebbed. In 2009 the New Yorker critic James Wood published an essay called “Paul Auster’s Shallowness” that parodied Auster’s plots. “He does nothing with cliché except use it,” Wood scoffed.
Now, after a seven-year hiatus, Auster is back with his longest and most ambitious book. 4 3 2 1 is a whopper: 866 densely-packed pages. The governing conceit is not original – it was used by Kate Atkinson in her novel Life After Life (2014) and, to step Napoleonically from the sublime to the ridiculous, by the makers of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors. 4 3 2 1 tells multiple versions of the same life-story, demonstrating, not very interestingly, how every life is governed by random chance (or, you might say, by Austerity).
Wandering through Auster’s mammoth maze of alternative histories is New Jersey-born Archie Ferguson. There are four versions of Archie, whom we meet in successive chapters titled “1.1,” “1.2,” “1.3” and so on. A prologue introduces us to Archie’s parents, Stanley and Rose. Even in the novel’s early pages, elephantiasis looms. Two obese paragraphs are devoted to listing Rose’s reasons for marrying Stanley – there are eighteen, in case you’re wondering. This prologue also clues us in to the scale of Auster’s ambitions. We open on Ellis Island, with Stanley’s father, a Russian Jew from Minsk, receiving his new American name (Ichabod Ferguson). Any book that opens with an Ellis Island baptism is plainly shooting for Great American Novel status. Twenty pages later, Rose reads Tolstoy. “It was Tolstoy who […] understood all of life, it seemed to her, everything there was to know about the human heart and the human mind.” Stand back! Tolstoyan epic coming through!
The differences between Auster’s alternate timelines don’t add up to much – Archie Version 4, for example, doesn’t find himself growing up in a world where Hitler won, or anything exciting like that. It’s all minor stuff: one version of Archie falls out of a tree as a child and breaks his leg; another loses two fingers in a car accident. Toward the novel’s end, Archie reflects that “the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place.” If this is the upshot of your novel, then why not make your chosen alternatives more dramatic? – leaving aside, for now, the fact that this is a pretty banal conclusion for any saga to arrive at, after more than 800 pages.
Oscar Wilde’s observation, in “The Critic as Artist” (1891), that “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” is quoted often; the sentence that follows it, almost never. “To be natural,” Wilde wrote, “is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Paul Auster is, in this sense, a natural writer. He is always obvious. He is almost always inartistic. Where a cliché will do, he uses a cliché. Where a cliché will not do, he uses a different cliché.
4 3 2 1 is, unsurprisingly, a factory farm of clichés. Archie’s mother is a “rock of composure.” A storm is “a raging downpour.” Once “Ferguson summoned up the courage to approach his mother,” “she took the plunge.” After the death of their Uncle Lew, “the Ferguson clan had been blown to bits.” Archie “languishes” in bed with a broken leg, “cooped up in his room,” reflecting that “there was no one to blame for this misfortune but himself.” His cousin Francie comes to visit, and “the time he spent with her was always the most enjoyable part of the day.” Later, a conversation will “hit Ferguson like a blow to the stomach.” “They were the longest ten seconds of Ferguson’s life.” And when his mother finds a location for her photography studio, “her long search was finally over.”
Once again, there are 866 pages of this. Most mediocre novels have the decency to peter out after two hundred pages – maybe after three or four hundred, in egregious instances (even mediocrity is tough to sustain over the long term). But 4 3 2 1 just keeps on rolling. It is mediocrity turned, Spinal Tappishly, up to eleven. Meanwhile, a quick lesson in how to write: First thought, worst thought. Second thought, second-worst thought. And so on.