It was an exhausting long read. And miscellaneous like a life. Actually, like four lives. 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster shortlisted for 2017 Man Booker Prize is a true literary masterpiece, however, not destined for every reader.
Almost one thousand of pages tells a life story of a young lad Archibald (Archie) Ferguson born in New Jersey in 1947, only split into four versions. Firstly, it causes confusion when the facts you‘ve already read come up in a different light till you finally get the idea of a quadrupled reality. Hence appropriate numbering of the chapters is a real salvation.
The same Archie Ferguson experiences different childhood with traumatic accidents (loosing his farther during a fire at the warehouse) and financial problems (business bankruptcy of his farther) or an abundant well-being on the opposite. Of course, it predetermines his future choices and people surrounding him. However, despite certain events and growing-up environment, Archie is almost the same introvert in each of his four lives, with a passion to write, play baseball and basketball, watch movies and dream about Paris. Probably because we all are what we are no matter what the circumstances are – we bring a particular genetic set of ourselves to the world.
The narrative winds in a very dilatory manner, sometimes converting the read into a long-lasting torture when you just can‘t force yourself to turn the next page and thus avoid a book for a day or two. But if you take that pause, you will certainly have to go back down your memory lane to remember which Ferguson did what and this might require to cast around heavily.
Moreover, 4 3 2 1 is not just a storytelling of four Fergusons on their life path, it is much more than that. The first word that comes to me is an almanac – all important dates, names and events are there added in every detail, only not just for one year but for the entire decade, including assassination of JFK, Martin Luther King, Vietnam War, Columbia University protests, Newark riots and many other. In addition, it is a catalog with comprehensive literature and cinematography lists, full of names and titles, which occupy pages of pages. Though a number of them serve as a necessary reference, the rest just stick as a worthless surplus information.
As Archie practices his writing skills in every of his four lives, more of a journalist in one, more of a translator of French poetry in another, and more as an author of prose in the third, Paul Auster incorporates Ferguson‘s works in the novel by presenting Archie‘s early literary attempt expressed by a short story about a pair of shoes, translated poems as well as ideas and extracts from his essays and books. Thus there‘re not only different selves of Archie: the novel itself represents a mixture of literature genres, which you peel off layer by layer like an onion wondering what you‘re going to find next.
Sadly Fergusons are being eliminated one by one. The second Archie is struck by lightening on his twelfth year of age, the third twenty-year old Archie is hit by a car in London, the first dies in the fire in his early twenties, leaving just the only Archie who is presumably the real one and the whole novel is his own idea „for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn‘t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.“ So the book ends with Ferguson‘s intent to write the exact book we‘ve just read.
As the circle closes, a mixed feeling settles around : you love the style and a complex matrix of a genre in a genre with all subtleties and decor, however, on the other hand, there‘s only very few my fellow readers I‘d recommend this book to. Perhaps it was a true engaging adventure to write it but knock me down, if you found it a pleasure to read. Try to read just one of the four versions of Archie's lives and it will be enough for you to consider whether you proceed further - this was the advice I found by one of the commentators reviewing the novel and it woudn't sound any better than this one.
„ ...books lived inside you only as long as you were writing them, but once they came out of you, they were all used up and dead“, stated one of the characters in the novel. I‘d say the phrase is also applicable to the reader – you are in a turmoil of emotions while reading 4 3 2 1 but once you're finished, you‘re not going to touch it anymore.