As much as I love books, I was somewhat daunted by the colossal size of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. Coming in at 1070 pages, this is not a quick read by any stretch of the imagination and has been on my ‘to be read’ pile for the past few years. However, with the lockdown situation in the UK, I finally found myself with the time to plow through this American epic. What I found was a lengthy but lovingly crafted study of America in its post war ascendancy.
We follow the life, or rather lives, of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born shortly after the close of WWII. 4 3 2 1 follows four different lives for Ferguson, with small changes in the circumstances of Ferguson’s upbringing having huge consequences for his future. Each chapter is divided into four ‘sub-chapters’, showing how Ferguson’s development alters in the different strands of his life. While he has many of the same people and places around him in each version of his life, Ferguson ends up taking a widely varied route through early childhood, school, and college over the course of the 50’s and 60’s. 4 3 2 1 shows how Ferguson, and indeed all of his generation, lived a life in the US shaped by the dramatic events of the period. The Cold War, JFK’s assassination, the Civil Rights movement, and Vietnam were key flashpoints in post war America, and Auster shows how the ‘baby boomers’ were strongly affected by these through his protagonist.
I enjoyed seeing a period of US history that I’ve always been fascinated by through Ferguson’s eyes. The character represents a generation leaving behind the formalities of their predecessors to embrace a new lifestyle. Each iteration of Ferguson holds the same desire to be a writer, but does so in varying ways from pursuing a career in journalism to working with a small independent publisher to have his own works published. His ambitions reflect the desire of a generation to take its new place in the world, while his mistakes and misfortunes are representative of the troubled times during this period.
From a narrative standpoint, the decision to have four separate iterations of Ferguson is an interesting one. The reader sees how these versions of Ferguson fan out from the same initial place, developing different views on the world and new relationships as a result. A lover in one section will barely be an acquaintance in another, Ferguson’s father will be a major part of his life in one section and an absentee in another. Our protagonist will seek to go to a major college in one sub-chapter, while experimenting with his sexuality in another. By the end of the book, there’s a wide contrast in the different iterations of Ferguson. It is a case of both nature and nurture, the external and internal pressures, that help to pave the way for Ferguson.
4 3 2 1 takes place in a period of great change in the US, and we see events such as the Kennedy assassination and Martin Luther King’s marches through the eyes of Ferguson. I’ve studied this period in my educational career and watched many documentaries on this period of time, but this book gave me a great appreciation for the personal impact that these events had on ordinary Americans. The assassination of JFK leaves Amy Schneiderman, a constant presence for all versions of Ferguson, in tears for one chapter, an event that proves to be a major foundation of this Amy’s personality. We also see the student protests at Columbia University in 1968, in response to the Vietnam War and plans for a racially segregated gym. The book does an excellent job of showing the human response to these events, and their impact on the American psyche, as well as how they divided society across generational and racial boundaries at the time. In this way, despite the events of the novel occurring now over sixty years ago, 4 3 2 1 feels extremely relevant to current events at the time of this review.
One thing that did surprise me, given the size of the book, is that we are only shown Ferguson’s early life through to graduating college. I assumed we would see an older Ferguson, perhaps grappling with Watergate and the return to Republican values over the 1980’s. The book instead keeps its focus on Ferguson’s formative years. While this is successful in showing how Ferguson develops into a young man, it does mean that the pace is extremely slow. There are a few hundred pages completed before Ferguson even reaches high school. The book is well written throughout, with some very memorable scenes in Ferguson’s life lovingly detailed. Acts of young love, pursuing grand ambitions, and experiencing heartbreaking loss are very poignant. Inevitably though, for a book of this size, there are a few descriptions of Ferguson’s writing influences and overly descriptive scenes that turn this epic into more of a slog.
Experience is key in 4 3 2 1 and this book was certainly an experience for me. It’s a tough book to recommend, not just for its doorstop size but also the challenging nature of the content inside. That said, if you do find yourself willing to take this book on, you’ll experience a novel that wraps itself in the history and culture of America so much that it comes close to being one of the great American novels.