Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 has been a mammoth read, at 866 pages, but very much worth the effort. The story follows Ferguson (referred to by his surname throughout for some reason) through four different versions of his life, its changes shifted by small incidents that affect the course of events, finding some things wildly different and others immutable, like his relationship with Amy Schneiderman. He becomes a writer in each of the stories, but writes different things; in one poetry, in another fiction and another journalism. It seems quite common for authors to write stories about people who are writers, not just because it is familiar to them but I suppose because most jobs are mundane, routine and separate from your everyday life and therefore to include them in a novel would be tedious. Our hero Ferguson is born in 1947, the same year as Paul Auster himself, so I assumed there is some element of nostalgia, if not autobiography going on. I felt that the book was also an excuse to write about that turbulent period in America's history, the prosperity of the 50s and the political strife of the 60s. In one story he is in the thick of the political protest and in another a more dispassionate observer. Like John in 'Prayer for Owen Meaney' Ferguson is saved from the Vietnam draft in one story by the loss of a finger in an accident. It is another book that is very much about relationships; some are solid throughout the book, like his friendship with Noah, others are more and less involved, like with his aunt Mildred. The bond with Amy takes many forms, in one they have a long intense relationship, in another they become step-siblings, but she is there throughout his life as the person he loves.
His childhood summers are spent away at camp, where he forms a bond with a boy called Artie, who's sudden death has a huge impact in one story.
"Noah suddenly butted in. Boys, boys, he said, speaking in a deep, early funny Father-knows-best voice, stop this senseless quarrelling at once. We all know who the best centre fielder is, don't we? Ferguson and Dubinsky both turned and looked at Noah, who was lying on his bed with his elbow on the pillow and his head propped up on his hand. Dubinsky said: All right Harpo, let's hear it - but it better be the right answer. Now that he had their attention, Noah paused for a moment and smiled, a goofy yet inordinately beatific smile that lodged itself in Ferguson's memory and was never lost, recalled again and again as he passed from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, a lightening bolt of pure, wild-eyed whimsy that revealed the true heart of the nine-year-old Noah Marx for the second or two it lasted, and then Noah ended the confrontation be saying: I am." (Part 1.4 p.102)
Here he loses an early girlfriend, taken back to Europe by her parents. This quote is included for Monkey, because of the mention of the Belgian girl, because this was the unofficial name of the character she portrayed in the production of Hansel and Gretel at the Edinburgh Fringe:
"He saw her only once after that, a farewell date on Wednesday, an exceptional school-night outing that his mother allowed because she knew how important it was to him, even giving him extra money for cab fare (the first and only time it ever happened), so that he and his Belgian girl would not have to endure the humiliation of being chauffeured around by one of his parents, which would only have underscored how young he was, and since when had anyone that young ever been seriously in love?" (Part 2.1 p.132)
Ferguson and Amy:
"Nevertheless, for all the things they did and all the things they saw, the best part of those Saturdays was sitting in coffee shops and talking, the first round of the ongoing dialogue that would continue for years, conversations that sometimes turned into fierce spats when their opinions differed, the good or bad film they had just seen, the good or bad political idea one of them had just expressed, but Ferguson didn't mind with her, he had no interest in pushovers, the pouting, nincompoop girls who wanted only what they imagined to be the formalities of love, this was real love, complex and deep and pliable enough to allow for passionate discord, and how could he not lover this girl, with her relentless, probing gaze and immense, booming laugh, the high-strung and fearless Amy Schneiderman, who one day was going to be a war correspondent or a revolutionary or a doctor who worked among the poor. She was sixteen years old, pushing towards seventeen. The blank slate was no longer entirely blank, but she was still young enough to know she could rub out the words she had already written, rub them out and start again whenever the spirit moved her." (Part 2.1 p.142-3)
On being Jewish, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it affects him. Here his friend has asked him if he celebrates Thanksgiving:
"Ferguson was so bewildered by Dougie's comment that he didn't know what to say. Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he might not be an American, or, more precisely, that his way of being an American was any less authentic than the way Dougie and the other boys were American, but that was what his friend seemed to be asserting: that there was a different between them, an elusive, indefinable quality that had to do with black-hatted English ancestors and the length of time spent on this side of the ocean and the money to live in four-story townhouses on the Upper East Side that made some families more American than others, and in the end the difference was so great that the less American families could barely be considered American at all." (Part 2.3 p.188)
I love the way books so often recommend other books. The post title comes from John Cage's book 'Silence', given to Ferguson by a fellow Princeton student, I cannot imagine a higher recommendation for a book:
"when Ron learned that their new friend from the Jersey swamps had never read a word of Cage's writing, he jumped to his feet, walked over to the bookcase, and pulled out a hardcover copy of Silence. You have to read this Archie, he said, or else you'll never learn how to think about anything except what other people want you to think." (p.594)
The good thing about a long book is the chance to become thoroughly engaged with the character's lives and this book taxes the reader just a little by shifting their lives and relationships, showing how people's strengths and weaknesses change with their experiences. Having said that, although I enjoyed 4 3 2 1, I preferred Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' which does the same thing to completely different effect. I was also left with one question, why do male writers find it necessary to mention to size of a woman's breasts? He did it enough times for me to remark on and be irritated by it.