Let’s establish right away that Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors. In fact, I’d consider myself something of a “fanboy.” I’ve read the vast majority of his published work after discovering him about ten years ago. He earned my trust back then, which means I will read anything he releases. Anything.
4 3 2 1 is an ambitious work that absolutely experiments with style and execution. It is extremely well written, meticulously organized, and clearly a labor of love. This is an important novel due to its sheer moxie; it not only challenges well-established conventions in the field of literature, it summarily ignores them.
But, even with all of that being said, it missed the mark for me. At 866 pages, 4 3 2 1 proved too much for this reader. As you know, Auster is an avid baseball fan, and I definitely felt like I needed a scorecard for this epic volume.
Without spoiling too much, this novel imagines the four possible lives of a single man. We follow him from boyhood all the way to death. There are many touchstones that are obviously invariable from life to life, but there are also several deviations that alter one life drastically from another. It’s a fascinating premise, one that we’ve all thought about from time to time. What if my parents had separated? What if I’d chosen a different school? What if I had fallen into that pit and been paralyzed? So many “what ifs” in life … Auster delves deeply into this notion while leaving no detail unexplored.
But, like Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, those nuanced details can overwhelm the reader to the point of provoking disengagement. At least, that’s what happened in my case.
Furthermore, if I’m being honest, Ferguson (the main character) is not especially interesting. No matter which life we address, Ferguson is a bit aloof, a bit too precocious, a bit unlikable. Well, perhaps “unlikable” is too strong of a word. I would never describe him as “likable,” though. Keep in mind, I don’t believe a character has to be “good” in the moral sense to be “likable.” There have been plenty of “bad” characters that I thought were incredibly charismatic.
On the subject of morality, be warned … there is a lot of sex in this book — more than any Paul Auster book I’ve ever read. There is straight sex, gay sex, committed sex, casual sex, oral sex, anal sex … you get the idea. The sex often seemed to me as forced. It never quite struck me as organic to the story.
While I found this to be a relevant addition to the author’s library because it broke new ground for an already inventive artist, it did not hold my attention. While the writing is masterful, it failed to capture my imagination. And while the characters are pounding with life, none of them seemed to take hold in my own.