4 3 2 1 Hardcover – 31 Jan 2017
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Auster truly is a master of his art. (Harper's Bazaar)
[Auster is] ... A joy to read. (The Economist)
A master of the modern American fable (The Independent)
Auster's writing is stunning. (Spectator)
A remarkable writer whose work needs to be read in totality (Sunday Herald)
There is still a hint of the magical in the every day events that he chronicles. (Tom Cox The Times)
Auster’s dazzling 880-page, brick-like 17th novel is, according to many, his greatest so far. In this ambitiously wide-angled panorama of American life between 1947 and 1971, we follow Archie Ferguson, a smart New Jersey kid, along four alternative destinies. An immersive, challenging read. (Financial Times)
Paul Auster's first novel in seven years. His greatest, most provocative, most heartbreaking, most satisfying work. A sweeping story of birthright and possibility, of love and the fullness of life itself.
'One of the great writers of our time' San Francisco Chronicle
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A tremendous education in post war American culture, politics and social history, together with a deep, critical understanding of literature. My only criticism was it was perhaps ' too literary' the authors love of writing itself and the written word were perhaps over indulged and at times obscured the dramatic narrative of Fetguson's ( the books central character) lives.
It made me laugh when the first young Ferguson has every intention of marrying his mother! What Auster does is bring home how each different decision and event changes the life of Ferguson through an intense and tumultuous period of American social and political history of the 1960s up until the early 1970s. So we get the awareness of the fate of the Rosenbergs, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the protests in which Ferguson takes part.
I found it difficult to remember which Ferguson is which at times, partly my fault but partly because whilst Ferguson has different lives, he is essentially the same person. He is a writer in every version of his life, his politics are progressive, and Amy is the girl he gets involved with albeit with differing results. He dwells on the nature of money and whether it should necessarily dictate that the family should therefore move into a bigger house just because they could. Auster captures the raw energy, vitality and intensity with which the young live their lives and the central role of and obsession with sex. I loved the cultural references such as the books and movies that marked the period. Different events in the family mark each Ferguson, such as the death of his father in a arson attack on the store. One Ferguson experiences an early death as a result of a lightning storm.
This is a very long and ambitious novel which might not be to everyone's taste and there are some extremely long sentences in it. I loved it, although it is not perfect and there are parts which tended to ramble a little too much. The prose is beautiful and I found the narrative a gripping read most of the time. Near the end, Auster informs us why the novel was structured as it is. Elements of the novel have been informed by the autobiographical details of the author's life. Characters from his previous novels make an appearance in this book. Auster is connecting his life's work and life brilliantly in this novel. This is essentially the story of the life and times of Paul Auster. A highly recommended read. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for an ARC.
People might be put off by the minute detail of the stories and having to keep track of them (I for one loved this!). People might be put off by the simultaneous telling of the stories. Imagine reading John Updike’s Rabbit series (parts 1 and 2, at least) all at once. And then doing it again three more times with slightly differing variations. Not everyone would wish to do this. This book will divide opinion. Why not just write a straightforward autobiography? What is the point of writing four slightly different versions? Is this an exercise in self indulgence? Is this all just Paul Auster writing at length about his process? In every scenario the main character, Archie Ferguson, becomes a writer, and we get to hear all about his cultural and artistic inspiration. We get to hear all about his loves and hedonistic pleasures as well. We get to hear all about his family and friendships. We get to hear all about how he is shaped by the 1960s. All kind of the same, but slightly different...or not!
But, this is so important a point, because it is the slightest change to the minutest most mundane of details that can alter the course of one’s life. And that is the central theme of this book. The altered courses may not be significantly different from one another, but they are just that bit different enough to cause a ripple that shifts everything into a new direction. And it is always the combination of choice and chance that lead to a chain of events -- it isn't either, or. You are both in control and not in control. Any link on the chain can be broken, which can lead to a brand new chain, and this can be as a result of your choice, an accident, or a combination of both.
To take an example from my own life, I lost very close family members to an accident nearly 20 years ago. I had no control over this incident. But I have no doubt it significantly altered the course of my life and caused me to make a decision that changed my life forever. Had the accident not happened my life may have been different, although maybe not all that different. Another example is of a choice I made, so I had complete control, of leaving a job I liked, a choice I often regret. I took another job (in the medical profession) which made me more aware of a sign that I had cancer (something I might have simply ignored had I stayed in that other job). It was treatable, and I survived. I know, seems like a random piece of reasoning, but that is the weird way life works sometimes. These are mental exercises I like to do every now and then, how would my life be different if this hadn't happened, or if I had made a completely different decision? The likely scenario is yes, my life would be different, but perhaps not radically so. The variables may change, but the one constant remains me, and how I react to the situations that arise, and my reactions may be very similar in each scenario. But life is not all about me, and I don't live in a vacuum, and people come along and people go, and this is what shapes your life.
This is the sort of pondering Paul Auster does with his “speculative autobiography,” represented by the main character, Archie Ferguson. Does his life (or his lives) warrant 900 pages? There is a case to be put that this could have been just as effective if these were four short stories instead. But, the scale here is epic and grandiose. This is big picture territory. Each of the four different versions of Ferguson’s life hangs on the balance of probabilities, and the subtle nuances that are altered create significant differences, particularly between the relationship he has with his father, which is another central theme of the book. There is an undercurrent throughout the 4 different stories to suggest that economic prosperity due to running a successful business comes at a great cost, that cost being that his father works too hard, cares too much about money and spends very little quality time with his son. It is the scenario in which economic times are rough, and Ferguson's father is forced to run a much smaller scale business, and that seems to lead to the young Ferguson’s happiest upbringing due to his father finally being able to bond with him. Then there is the suggestion in the scenario in which both of his parents are too focused on running their businesses that the young Ferguson develops an independent and self-reliant streak as a result and learns to tough it out and resolve problems on his own and is not mollycoddled like he is in the scenarios in which at least one of his parents is attentive to his every need. Thus, here is an interesting thought provoking essay about the relationship between economics, family dynamics and personal growth. At several times this book made me stop to think about just such issues and the interrelationships between these concepts. This is a book for anyone interested in psychology and sociology. Basically, everything that happens to us, good or bad, will be the making of us, will shape who we become. Questions are addressed, such as, is it better to be bullied so you can develop coping mechanisms for whatever life has to throw at you? Or is it better to avoid being bullied in the first place? Or is it better to run home crying? If you go on to develop a self reliant, independent streak do you then become reckless and fearless to the point of doing something crazy and dangerous, which leads to an early death? Is it better to be cautious and risk averse? Or does this lead to a life of unfulfilled potential? These are the kinds of questions explored in this behemoth of a book.
I could write a deliberately oversimplified summary of the shortest lifespan of the four (if you don't like spoilers, look away now -- but even if you know the plot synopsis of one storyline there are still three others!), the story in which Ferguson dies at the youngest age. Prosperous businesses run by both parents leads to house in suburbs leads to big tree in front yard leads to boy climbing tree at age 5 leads to boy falling out of tree leads to lengthy recuperation at home leads to being out of school with grandmother looking after boy leads to grandmother teaching boy to read and write beyond his years leads to precocious boy at age 11 starting clever school newspaper leads to inquisitive boy showing interest in politics leads to accusations by school principal accusing boy of communism and jealous peers in his class leads to bullying leads to boy forming view of world as cruel unpredictable and unjust place where you aren't rewarded for your efforts, but mocked and persecuted, leads to ambivalence regarding life, with absent parents who are too busy with their successful businesses boy has nobody to guide him through his turmoil, leads to suffering silently, leads to reading Kafka, leads to a bitter self reliance and a bit of recklessness leads to boy having something to prove and engaging in a final dangerous act at summer camp which leads to his death at age 13. Where in this chain of events did this particular trajectory take a wrong turn? The falling from the tree at age 5? The learning to read and write at age 5? The parents being absent? The newspaper at age 11? The political discussion with his cousin? Or was it just a random accident at summer camp? In the UK a Coroner would have to come to a conclusion on the balance of probabilities (was it an accident? Did the kid have a death wish?). The reader can look back at this life with hindsight, and then look at other versions of this life where there is no tree and therefore there is no accident at age 5. To some readers this is tedious and pointless, but to me (and obviously to Paul Auster) this is a kind of game of mental chess! I could ponder this for hours.
This book is also not depicting any alternate American history. We're not talking about the course of American history being changed over the four different Ferguson lives. Each and every important event in America in the 20th century takes place as it always does. That's a constant. For instance, the New York Giants always clinch the World Series in four straight games over the Cleveland Indians in 1954. However, the repercussions of the result of this World Series have differing drastic consequences for the Ferguson family depending upon only one variable; that is, the team upon which Uncle Lew places a rather hefty bet!
I always enjoy a book more when I can relate to the characters’ life experiences and background. I, too, am the product of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the US. I, too, know the saga of family business pitting brother against brother. This is part of my family narrative. The wide gulf between the backgrounds of each of Ferguson’s parents echoes my own (is this a ‘thing’ in Jewish families?). Even the origin of how a Jewish family ended up with the name ‘Ferguson’ is an all too familiar one -- again, just a chance event with huge repercussions.
The people who are constants in Ferguson’s life may have differing circumstances from one life to the next. For example, the free spirited intellectual Aunt Mildred may have coompletely different husbands/partners in each life, but in each scenario, she is a major cultural influence in Ferguson’s life (either directly or indirectly).
Ferguson loves Amy Schneiderman in more than one scenario. She isn't always available in each of the scenarios, not necessarily because she doesn't love him, but in one life the opportunity to fall in love presents itself. In another life, however, this opportunity never materialised (and it would be too much of a spoiler to say why!). In life, the person who becomes the love of your life often is somebody you hardly notice when you first make their acquaintance. It is having the opportunity to get to know them that leads to love. And the circumstances that make that person available. So Amy’s indifference to Archie in one scenario as opposed to another is due to circumstances that don't allow this love to fully develop. And of course Ferguson is a slightly different version of himself, and in one scenario he is more attractive to Amy, whilst in another he is simply not.
Of course it's not just Archie Ferguson whose life is affected by the swings of the economic pendulum. In one scenario, the family is thriving and living the American Dream, but Archie’s mother gives up her thriving photography career in the process, as her income no longer “matters.” However, in the circumstances in which the mother becomes a young widow, she becomes a great artist. So, economic prosperity continues to come at a great price to members of the Ferguson family. In fact, each of the four life scenarios is depicted at differing points along the continuum of economic circumstances, from poorest to richest, and it could be argued that there is an inverse relationship between the level of happiness and life satisfaction on the one hand and the position along the economic spectrum on the other hand. That is, material wealth and success is achieved at a soul destroying cost. In fact, everything comes at a cost. His happiness usually has unforeseen tragic consequences. Life becomes one giant equation, forever balancing itself out, with both the good and the bad, the comic and the tragic, hope and despair, life and death.
In each scenario, Ferguson suffers a crisis of faith. His belief in God is always put to the test. Even the absurd extended riff on a pair of anthropomorphic shoes called Hank and Frank is a polemic about being slaves to the master of fate.
One of the biggest themes explored is about the relationship Ferguson has with his father. In one scenario, he has a close relationship with his father; in another, his father is killed while he is a child; in still another, his father is alive, although he is largely absent from his life during his formative years, and the two eventually become estranged with heartbreaking consequences. In every scenario, Ferguson’s relationship with his mother remains a constant. Each of the three scenarios sees Ferguson share a strong bond with his mother. But, it's the relationship with his father that seems to determine where things branch off. There is much reference to the reunion of Odysseus with his son Telemachus.
But it's not just father-son relationships that are a central theme to this book (although, it could be argued this is the great theme binding all the stories together). There are also the important friendships and/or mentors, the people who enrich our lives, and if they were not in our lives then our lives would be very different. The kind of people who you can't imagine living in a world without. For instance, the character of Noah Marx, Ferguson’s greatest friend, who only came into his life due to his Aunt Mildred marrying Noah’s father in one of the scenarios but ends up having the greatest impact in comparison to his other “lives,” the other lives in which he and Noah never meet. Or Howard Small, another important friend who he meets only because he happens to be his roommate at Princeton, who of course he never meets in his other lives in which he doesn't attend Princeton, and his life is all the poorer for it.
At Columbia Ferguson becomes more engaged (albeit as a journalist witness rather than activist participant) with the politics of the 1960s, the anti Vietnam War protests, the civil rights protests, etc. At Princeton he devotes more of his time to fiction writing, it is a more insular and scholarly world. Still current events do catch up with him in a personal way, as he becomes embroiled in a bar brawl with local racist rednecks who don't take kindly to a mixed race couple. Much painstaking reference is made to that tremendous decade, but the political is always personal here, each earth shattering events of the outer world are neatly juxtaposed against the earth shattering events taking place within Ferguson’s inner world.
There are a lot of memorable characters and there is a lot of humour in this book, told in a very deadpan manner, with a somewhat surreal dark tinge (a particularly funny running joke are the bizarre deaths of Ferguson's randy grandfather in each scenario, each being slightly different but essentially the same version). But even the humour is peppered with a poignance, because in one scenario the grandfather outlives the grandmother (whereas in others he goes before her) and it becomes apparent just how his life fell apart when he became widowed. Even the minor characters have much more going on underneath the surface.
In summary, this is an ambitious epic novel, which may prove a challenging read for some (I had no trouble at all keeping track of the different scenarios), the prose at times is so eloquent and beautifully written, and at other times so infuriatingly self indulgent. But, I can forgive much of this and have a lot of patience for Auster’s writing.
The ending seems tacked on and it was fairly obvious to me early on in the book how it would eventually “play out.”
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