Book Review: 4,3,2,1 by Paul Auster

Thanks to NetGalley and Faber and Faber Books for an early advance reader copy of this novel.

Regular readers of my blog will note that I was really looking forward to this book as I wrote about in a Waiting on Wednesday post early last month.  I couldn’t wait until the author event I have booked on in March with London Review Bookshop before reading it and so I cracked on with reading the book.

I knew that the reader will be taken on a journey of a man’s life once and then see alternative routes to that life but was surprised with how Auster approached this.  I had wrongly assumed the story would be told once and then again, again and again – almost like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  Instead Auster first introduces us to the genealogy of his protagonist, – Archibald Ferguson (Ferguson) – and we follow Ferguson through four parallels of his life at the same time.

At first the parallels are difficult to distinguish however, as the book progresses significant events in history and Ferguson’s own life shapes his future – for example, in one life Ferguson’s father dies in another Ferguson’s father is rich and the other Ferguson’s father is struggling with his business and lives a simple life.  The impact of these differing outcomes for his father undoubtedly has an effect on Ferguson’s life.

Whilst each of the lives veers off onto different roads there are strong constants.  For example, Ferguson’s love of sport, literature, arts, and above all the need for love – or to be loved to be exact features in every single one of the alternative lives.  Ferguson’s need for love is prevalent not only in his relationship with his mother (even in the life where Ferguson grows tired of his mother he still deflects back to her when the going gets tough) but also with his alternative relationships with a girl called Amy.  The reader is taken on a journey of Ferguson’s sexual lives with older women, men, and with the sister of his dead friend.  Each of these love stories are engaging and poetically described.

Another wonderful theme that runs through the early parts of the book is the young Ferguson’s relationship with God.  He questions his existence following his father’s death and notes that “if God was silent now, did that mean He would be silent forever or eventually start talking to him again?“.  This internal struggle Ferguson grapples with is evocative to say the least.

As the stories went on the enthusiasm I had at the start of the book began to wane.  That was largely due to the very long sentences and tangents which Auster takes you down: some of these are fantastic however, others were quite tiresome.  My favourite ‘tangent’ was perhaps the short story young Ferguson drafts of a pair of shoes – Tank and Frank.  The story was a light bit of prose which was needed at that moment.  This was another gem:

A butterfly starts out as a caterpillar, an ugly sort of earthbound, wormy nothing, and then one day the caterpillar builds a cocoon, and after a certain amount of time the cocoon opens and out comes the butterfly, the most beautiful creature in the world.  That’s what happens to souls as well, Archie.  They struggle in the depths of darkness and ignorance, they suffer through trials and misfortunes, and bit by bit they become purified by those sufferings, strengthened by the hard things that happen to them, and one day, if the soul in question is a worth soul, it will break out of its cocoon and soar through the air like a magnificent butterfly.

How beautiful is that sentiment?  Having read around this book it appears that Auster drew a lot from his personal experiences in this novel and – if you can get there – the last couple of pages of the book explains why the four parallel lives of Archibald Ferguson have been so written.  I am not sure the ending had the desired effect.

I suppose my last thought on this book is that I wish Auster took heed of what his character Ferguson already knew: “the job of writing was as much about removing words as adding them“.  I can’t help but think if he just wrote the story of Ferguson in ‘life 4’ it would have made for a much less arduous read.

Recommended for: If you enjoyed Life After Life you will enjoy this.

Rating: 3.5

Favourite quotes: the silence of the silent films seemed to produce a frenzy of auditory hallucinations, which said something about human perception, he supposed, and how people experienced things when they were emotionally involved in the experience

Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: 4,3,2,1 by Paul Auster

  1. Really good review 😊 I’m sure I’ve read elsewhere that it’s a pretty long book and maybe could have done with a bit of further editing as you say!


  2. Pingback: February Wrap Up

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