4321 by Paul Auster

If we live only a small part of our inner life externally, what happens to the rest? Unfortunately Auster doesn’t address this intriguing question in any kind of stimulating way though you’d think a novel about a character living four parallel lives would.
How much of fate comes from within and how much comes from without? Unfortunately Auster doesn’t address this intriguing question in any kind of stimulating way either though you’d think a novel about a character living four parallel lives would.

I’ve got a lot of time for Paul Auster but I’m afraid I found this a self-indulgent and ultimately pointless novel. I wasn’t a great fan of Life after Life but Atkinson’s novel on a similar theme is much more fluid and interesting structurally than this. It’s also immeasurably more outlandishly playful. Atkinson’s heroine becomes a downtrodden bullied wife in one version; assassinates Hitler in another. Auster’s hero, by contrast, goes to Princeton in one version; Colombia in another. Maybe that’s truer to life but it hardly makes for gripping dramatic tension. And yet Auster is quite happy to employ melodrama as a deciding factor in creating crossroad moments – a murdered father, a car crash resulting in the loss of thumb and first finger – except his melodrama leads to banal distinctions. Atkinson, like the film Sliding Doors, identified the crossroad moments when a fate might change course; Auster doesn’t – he uses accidents rather than choices to define the fate of his character. Things happen off-screen and differently from one life to another for no apparent reason: an uncle makes a bizarre decision, the father makes completely different life choices for no apparent reason with far reaching repercussions in one life which he doesn’t make in another. In this regard, Ferguson is like a puppet operated by his male family members.

Auster’s hero is perhaps the biggest problem. I was never convinced he was sufficiently intriguing as a character for a 200 pg novel, let alone an almost 900 pg one. The sixties should be fascinating but Ferguson is like some throwback to the 1950s. Though this novel is waterlogged with the minutiae of 60s news items and memorabilia there’s no mention of LSD, of rock music, of hippy culture. Ferguson loves baseball, basketball, Bach and beer. He’s not a child of his time. Therefore the decade begins to become irrelevant and it’s a bit baffling why so much energy is spent in trying to recreate it. I assumed at least one version would send him to Vietnam or prison to provide some real dramatic contrast. Nope. Instead the cliffhanger is whether Ferguson will become a novelist or a translator of poetry. Gripping stuff! At the heart of this novel is a colossal failure of imagination on Auster’s part – he can’t imagine himself as anything but a writer. That said, I agree with Auster and not with Atkinson – that if we had four cracks at life they wouldn’t be significantly different – but for that very reason this all becomes a very pointless and long winded exercise.

The other problem is you also get three or four lives in a computer game and after a while this began to become as predictable and repetitive as a computer game. Whatever happens isn’t sufficiently consequential to sustain interest. There’s not much at stake when you get four rolls of the dice. So what if he dies in one version? It’s actually a relief because it was hard work trying to remember the thin distinctions between one life and another. At least, we now had one less nuanced account of his love life and literary aspirations to retain in memory. (This novel would be a good test for evaluating how prone you might be to dementia.) And to be honest I didn’t understand why things turned out differently in the various versions. Because his father dies he becomes gay? That seemed to me a crass piece of reasoning. In one version his cousin Amy finds him irresistible; in another she’s sexually indifferent. I never had a clue why. My feeling was Auster didn’t either. That his main motivation for writing this was to lavishly indulge in nostalgia for his lost youth. Then why not just write a memoir? To add insult to injury he deploys an utterly lame post-modernist trick at the end, trying to cajole us into believing the whole thing has been the height of cleverness.

After this, Jane Smiley’s dreadful Some Luck and Murakami’s rambling dead end 1Q84 I’m now going to think very hard before reading any novel over 700 pages.paul-auster


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