4 3 2 1 is a huge behemoth of a book that takes commitment and persistence to finish.
The first third of the book was absolutely stunning. I was nearly all the way through the first section of four chapters about Archie Ferguson, wondering when the four parallel lives were going to come into play, when I realised that I was already there. Being confronted with two conflicting stories about what had happened to Archie’s father and his business caused me to completely reassess the previous chapters. Others may have worked out Auster’s numbering device sooner but I was only reading a chapter a night before bed.
When I finally had my ah-ha moment, I doubled back to create a timeline for each life – where did each Ferguson live, what car did his mum drive, which cigarette brand did she smoke, what happened to his uncles and aunts and how did his dad’s furniture business pan out? I thought I would never keep track of all the details.
However as we moved further away from the common story of Archie’s origin, the four lives diverged so much that it actually became fairly easy to remember what was happening in each story and why.
Auster, well known as an adherent of metafiction, used his characters to play with his ideas about parallel lives at various times.
Archie 3 said early on,
The world wasn’t real anymore. Everything in it was a fraudulent copy of what it should have been, and everything that happened in it shouldn’t have been happening….but an unreal world was much bigger than a real world, and there was more than enough room in it to be yourself and not yourself at the same time.
Later on Archie 4 remarked,
there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.
All of the Archie’s developed a few influential friendships and key interests (sport and literature in particular). They appeared in different ways and took different forms for each Archie.
The early years of the four Ferguson’s were clever, fascinating and exciting writing. I was hooked.
I reached the halfway point of the story so quickly, I felt sure I would finish the rest within a week. A personal chunkster record! But then we hit Archie’s early twenties and my attention and enthusiasm began to flag. I had been waiting for some ‘big event that rips through the heart of things and changes life for everyone, the unforgettable moment when something ends and something else begins.’ Just like Archie 1.
Instead, the stories had settled into just another coming of age story in America in the sixties.
I put the book aside for a couple of weeks to see if a mini-break would help.
I ploughed my way through the next four chapters of Archie, but failed to recapture my enthusiasm. Everything that had charmed me early on just annoyed me now.
Usually I love books that mention books that the characters are reading, but by the end of 4 3 2 1, Archie’s huge reading list felt like nothing more than a whose who of classic and modern literature with no surprises and seemingly little relevance to the story. To discover that one of the Archie’s was writing a book called The Ferguson Story added another metafiction layer, but failed to excite me.
I have worked and reworked this response to 4 3 2 1, and I’m still not happy with it. Like the book, I feel it is unsatisfactory and overly long. But an inadequate posted review is better than an unposted draft waiting for brilliance.
Perhaps that’s how Auster felt too.
For another 4 3 2 1 review try My Booking Great Blog.