By Helen Chatterton
4 3 2 1, the latest novel by Paul Auster, is an 866-page depiction of the major and minor events in the life of one Archie Ferguson, using the concept of the butterfly effect to explore the impact of decisions on personal development. The book gets off to a relatively slow start, setting up the lineage of Archie’s ancestors in a manner similar to that of medieval Icelandic sagas, to the effect of being relatively dull and hard to follow.
The pivotal concept of Archie having four different incarnations is not explicitly explained, and thus to read blind initially disorientates the reader. However, once established, the four separate narratives are reasonably easy to follow, with indication given at the start at each episode as to which Archie is being featured.
In all aspects, 4 3 2 1 takes detail to a new level. Given its tremendous page count, the novel is undeniably a long and sometimes testing read. Whilst the detailed nature of the prose is important in illustrating the expansive nature of life itself, it cannot be denied that some cuts to the word count would probably make the book far more commercial. Some sentences are impressively long, and the book also includes some extensive analysis of relatively banal events. The most captivating section of the text occurs during Archie’s journey from late teens to young adulthood, after which, the subject matter becomes, without explanation, less interesting.
On the other hand, the benefit of such a word count is the depth Auster gives to nearly all his characters, especially those of his mother and another prominent character, Amy. Additionally, the length allows for what is probably the most impressive aspect of the novel, its historical and cultural awareness. For anyone unfamiliar with post WWII America, Auster can fill you in. Born in 1947, Archie’s life intertwines heavily with the social divide over war in Vietnam and civil rights. No broad strokes are taken in Auster’s approach to narrating America’s relatively recent history, with specific references peppered throughout. Additionally, the novel contains a phenomenal number of references to prevalent texts, films and music.
What is particularly refreshing about the book is its unabashed nature, featuring frank discussions about LGBTQ+ matters and the desires and fears of teenage boys. Auster’s use of language is similarly brave, taking no qualms with describing actions exactly as they are, but is at other times exceptionally beautiful.
This book is perfectly suited for a reader with a bit of spare time on their hands, who enjoys stories where there is no one particular crisis to be solved, but instead deals with the peculiarities of living.
Illustration: Katie Butler