4 3 2 1: A Novel

Paul Auster
  • Review
By – December 21, 2017

4321: A Nov­el by Paul Auster | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

4 3 2 1 is a huge, sprawl­ing nov­el that details the ear­ly life of Archibald Isaac Fer­gu­son, Archie, a Jew­ish boy born in 1947 in Newark, New Jer­sey. Some­how, one Archie becomes four Archies, all born to the same par­ents on the same date in the same place. The four Archies have dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences, as do their par­ents and extend­ed fam­i­lies — expe­ri­ences that shape dif­fer­ent lives with many com­mon­al­i­ties. The Archies nev­er meet but seem to exist on par­al­lel time­lines. Despite the sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry of dif­fer­ent quan­tum states that could under­lie a frame­work of this type, Auster makes no ref­er­ences to sci­ence or sci­ence fic­tion in the book.

The char­ac­ters are sen­si­tive to how chance events can sig­nif­i­cant­ly alter the present and future, and these obser­va­tions pro­vide one theme echoed in the novel’s struc­ture. For exam­ple, one Archie rec­og­nizes that the same boy, with the same par­ents, who didn’t do the same things he did would now have a total­ly dif­fer­ent life. Any­thing was pos­si­ble, and just because things hap­pened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t hap­pen in anoth­er. Every­thing could be different.”

The novel’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture can be con­fus­ing until the read­er under­stands that each Archie has his own ver­sion through­out the nov­el: ver­sions 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each grows up in mid-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca and expe­ri­ences the era’s major his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ments, with vary­ing degrees of inten­si­ty and con­cern, includ­ing the civ­il rights move­ment, the Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion and assas­si­na­tion, the Viet­nam War and anti-war move­ment. The Archies learn to love lit­er­a­ture and music, writ­ing and base­ball. They are all intel­li­gent and ath­let­ic. Their intel­lec­tu­al, emo­tion­al, and sex­u­al growth are described sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly and real­is­ti­cal­ly. The read­er becomes a fan of each Archie and his sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers. The sur­pris­ing loss­es are wrenching.

A num­ber of themes recur in the life of each Archie, includ­ing the irra­tional­i­ty and cru­el­ty of the gods and their arbi­trary bestow­al of gifts and pun­ish­ments. Anoth­er theme is the impor­tance of hav­ing a call­ing,” a new way to be in the world. Writ­ing, in one genre or anoth­er, becomes crit­i­cal for the Archies. Rose, Archie’s moth­er, is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er who comes to love the work of look­ing into the faces of oth­ers. His father, Stan­ley, starts an appli­ance store, in sev­er­al iter­a­tions, and finds that the store was a man’s life — the store and the man were one.”

4 3 2 1 is an absorb­ing nov­el with vivid char­ac­ters and a well-paced plot. It’s a book that cer­tain­ly rewards the per­sis­tent read­er — para­graphs tend to be long, often fill­ing an entire page. And while the end­ing of the nov­el will be a let­down to some, oth­er read­ers may find it clever. 

Inger Saphire-Bern­stein is a health pol­i­cy pro­fes­sion­al with exten­sive expe­ri­ence across mul­ti­ple health care deliv­ery set­tings and the insur­ance indus­try. She has pub­lished a num­ber of arti­cles and papers in the health pol­i­cy field.

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