The first observation most people seem to make about this novel by Paul Auster is that it’s long. And it is. At 866 pages, it is by far the longest novel on the Booker longlist. It needed to be long, although perhaps not this long.
In 4 3 2 1, Auster tells four different versions of the boyhood and early adulthood of Archie Ferguson. In all four versions, Ferguson is born in Newark in 1947. His father, Stanley, owns a furniture and appliance store, and his mother, Rose, is a photographer. The family is Jewish, but not devout. And, from there, each story spins in a different direction.
The primary source of difference has to do with the fate of Stanley Ferguson’s business. Its success or failure and the reasons behind it affects where young Archie lives, what his mother does, and his connections to extended family and friends.
Auster methodically works through each stage of the four Fergusons’ lives, showing him as a boy who loves sports and reading, a teenager obsessed with sex, and a young man setting out into the future—or not.
I loved the concept of this novel, largely because I love to think about how a single event can change everything. It was fascinating to see what elements of Ferguson’s personality stayed the same and which altered from one life to another. In my view, he still remained essentially himself, but circumstances in some lives brought out a more adventurous streak or a more cautious one. He always falls for a girl named Amy, but circumstances push the relationship in different directions. He always writes, but the nature of his writing (and his chosen pen name) varies from life to life.
There were a few variables that I wished Auster had not bothered to change, such as those around his aunt Mildred. She’s a key figure in his life, but the way her life varies in each story seemed to introduce unnecessary complications. Most other elements, however, remain stable, with the differences being easily traced back to his father’s business.
To fully capture all these lives, Auster needed to write a long book. Each story could just about stand alone (with one significant exception), although they’re more interesting when viewed side by side. In isolation, most of these stories don’t offer much that’s new. Ferguson is almost excessively ordinary, or at least an ordinary example of a specific type of New York intellectual man. And his lives, for the most part, don’t go in any extraordinary directions. One version, the third, is a little more original than the others, as Ferguson questions his sexuality, but even there, I’m not sure there’s much that’s different from other stories about the same journey, aside from the open acknowledgment that bisexuality is a thing.
Still, I enjoyed each thread well enough, and considering the stories side by side gives them a freshness that I appreciated. However, given how typical Ferguson and his lives are, it wouldn’t have been hard to cut this down by a hundred pages or more. It read reasonably quickly for me, but there’s a level of detail that isn’t always necessary. I found myself skimming long sections about sports, the books Ferguson was reading, and a student protest that Ferguson witnessed. And I relied a lot on momentum to keep going. It’s the kind of book that I wouldn’t necessarily be excited to pick back up once I put it down. Reading most of it over one weekend enabled me to hold the four lives in my head more easily and continue to care about them all.
With eight books on the Booker longlist read or attempted, this one ranks as number 6, but it probably won’t make my personal Booker shortlist unless the five books I have left to read are terrible. (And I’m far enough into Reservoir 13 to know that won’t be the case.) I wouldn’t be mad to see it shortlisted, but there are far more worthy candidates to win.