4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

One boy, four lives: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 is an epic novel that charts the life of one character in four stories that diverge from the moment he is born. Archie Ferguson, a Jewish American from New Jersey whose grandfather came to Ellis Island from Minsk, is born to Rose and Stanley Ferguson and from that point, his life goes four different ways, with four different Fergusons living and making choices and reacting to what goes on around them. They all battle with love and loss, write and play baseball and basketball, make friends and difficult decisions, all with the backdrop of America throughout the 1950s and 1960s, racism, the Vietnam War, and political upheaval. Every version of Ferguson has his individual story march on towards mortality, for they might’ve all started the same, but they don’t end up that way.

This is a masterful novel, a long ride through different ways that a single character could go, a character that is clearly the same person exposed to different things, allowed to have various thoughts and ideas, and with the people around him acting differently. Ferguson himself is decently complex, an aspiring writer who enjoys sports, learns French, and is sometimes a bit too clever for his own good. Auster doesn’t overplay the conceit too far, allowing central characters to appear across the stories and others to have cameos in one and a larger role in another, but not forcing every character into every story.

It is vital to know the concept before starting to read the book; this isn’t one to have its blurb ignored. Each chapter tells a different part of each story, chronologically, so that you get the first section of a Ferguson’s life four times, then the next section, and so on. This means that it is important to keep in mind which major events happen in which narrative, making Auster’s novel not much of a light read, but something to get stuck into, and it is far more rewarding when it is read in larger chunks.

4 3 2 1 deals with a number of recurring themes and issues—American life, Jewishness, success and failure, love, sexuality, the act of telling stories and writing them down—over its four narratives, making it a microcosm of America in the middle of the twentieth century as told through one character. It is a long novel, no light commitment and may take a little while to settle into the conceit, but it doesn’t let up and is a book well worth making it to the end of.