Sunday, 7 July 2019

Ruby Reviews 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

4 3 2 1 bu Paul Auster

A few months ago a friend gifted us a couple of books. She’s not a regular reader and thought she ought to try and be one, so she had bought some Booker Prize shortlisted titles in hardback. It may have been a New Year’s resolution or something, and like so many of those it fizzled out pretty quickly. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster subsequently appeared on our shelf. I was just coming off a strict diet of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels, by way of style research (did I mention I have a new Ger Mayes crime novel coming out myself soon?) and thought a bit of highbrow reading was in order, after all of Parker’s killing and mayhem. However, Lincoln in the Bardo defeated me within the first dozen pages. Clever as the delivery method might be in that book, I couldn’t stomach it. So I turned to the huge 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.

Inside the front of the hardback jacket cover, 4 3 2 1 lets the reader know what they’re taking on. Archie Ferguson is the MC and the book follows four alternative life paths from 1947 through to the late 1960s. Chapters are numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and so on to signify which of the four Fergusons are on call and the initial 1.0 sets the background with the Russian √©migr√© Jewish grandfather, his son Stanley and Ferguson’s mother, Rose. The parental characters also develop different life paths and are a constant feature of the book through flashback and forward. As a reader, I’m not a strong advocate of too much flashback and I dislike foreshadowing, but the author manages to use both techniques without being too invasive. Even when the certain death of some characters is foreshadowed, Auster somehow acquires the reader’s permission to do so. Perhaps that is because, knowing an individual is about to be killed off in life path A, the reader rests assured that the same individual is likely to endure in life path B, C or D. The discomfort of losing a character to which the reader has built an attachment is diminished, as they’re only one part dead.

I had thought it would be difficult to follow the four separate life paths of Ferguson. There were a few times when I wasn’t quite sure if I was in 1, 2, 3 or 4, but I didn’t succumb to the temptation of turning back to previous chapters. Instead, I trusted the author to provide enough clues and hooks to keep me on track, and Auster manages that well. As a reader, it was an enjoyable experience. As an author, I wondered how much technical work had gone into writing the book. Did he write four different 250 page novels? Did he plot all the details and timelines in advance? Were checks made to ensure the reader would intuitively know which of the four life paths were being read?

Paul Auster’s style put me in mind of John Irving, albeit with less acerbic wit. Auster’s coming of age story is threaded through with the emotional and physical rollercoasters that the first quarter-century of a life might contain. Love, abuse, disaster, romance, tragedy, sex, crime, friendship, racism, violence, success, failure, in all their shapes and colours. With Irving, the MC’s life story sometimes takes a route other than that which the reader might have preferred. With Auster’s 4 3 2 1 there is a choice of routes. The reader isn’t trapped in lengthy observation of a single trajectory. I could have eaten a little more humour than 4 3 2 1 contained, but that’s just a matter of taste. The twist in the tail, however, is quite deliciously logical.