How Paul Auster's Lengthy '4 3 2 1' Reimagined the Social Protest Novel

Cover courtesy of Henry Holt
Cover courtesy of Henry Holt
Photo of Reece Choules
17 May 2017

The American writer’s newest work is an 866-page Tolstoyan doorstopper that examines the upheaval of the 1960s with softly experimental narration. It may also be Auster’s biggest literary gamble to date.

For much of his career, the American author Paul Auster has developed a reputation for cultivating his own brand of postmodern fiction, one that combines a taut and insular style with a smoke and mirrors plot. In 4 3 2 1, Auster’s first novel in seven years, it may at first seem that he has abandoned this postmodernism for social realism. But then again, this is an Auster novel, and nothing is entirely what it appears to be.

4 3 2 1 tells the story of Archibald “Archie” Isaac Ferguson, a boy coming of age in mid-twentieth century America. His father Stanley and two brothers, sons of a Russian immigrant who had come to America in search of a better life, own and manage an appliance store. His mother Rose was once an aspiring photographer. Archie is their only child. These are the static aspects of 4 3 2 1; it’s what happens to them over the course of the novel that makes the novel Austerian.

While early on the book lines up its cards as an epic, panoramic, bildungsroman—and while Auster does a very fine job of affirming this trajectory by weaving the kind of storytelling you’d find in Tolstoy or Dickens (both writers are mentioned affectionately throughout the book)—there is a joker in the deck. Auster doesn’t just tell the life story of Archie, he tells the story of four separate Archies, each one the same boy, born on the same day, to the same parents, but each experiencing and living out completely different lives.

Gambling is a motif for both the plot (Stanley’s brother runs up a gambling debt, and Rose becomes a keen card player) and for the author. 4 3 2 1 is Auster playing with chance, a literary choose-your-own-adventure in which he spirals narratives out of what ifs. In each of the book’s four sections, for instance, Auster has Stanley come to the same juncture, in which he must decide on how to handle his brother’s insolvency, a decision that will have divergent outcomes and effects on nearly every character in the book.

The other prime and protean character is Archie, whose fate doesn’t rest on a single decision, but instead webs out from the result of many. One Archie, who loses his father in one of the aforementioned fates, comes to roam the streets of Paris and eventually becomes a novelist; another, whose father has survived but not prospered (unlike yet another Archie whose father does become quite successful), enrolls at Columbia and becomes a journalist. One Archie witnesses the death of a boy at a summer camp first-hand, another misses summer camp due to a broken leg. With each experience, Archie’s life trajectory is knocked to vastly different places, coloring his character in different shades. Indeed, there is a point early in the novel when Archie, confined to his bedroom with a broken leg, contemplates this premise: “What if he had fallen out of the same tree and had broken two legs instead of one? What if he had broken both arms and both legs? What if he had been killed? Yes, anything was possible, and just because things happened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t happen in another. Everything could be different.”

Photo | © Lotte Hansen, courtesy of Henry Holt

What Auster decides to keep as steadfast concern more personality than occupation, suggesting that some aspects of life aren’t prone to fate. No matter how Archie’s life plays out, he remains passionate about sports and literature (every Archie aspires to write). And all four Archies end up smitten by the same woman: Amy Schneiderman. Only one of them will become romantically involved with her, but it will be at a cost the others might prefer not to pay.

And just as Stanley and Archie are subjected to different fates, so too are the characters in their proximity. Rose’s gambling habit, mentioned above, only occurs in one narrative. In another she’s the successful business owner of her own photography shop. Archie’s aunt Mildred either witnesses the counterculture movement as a professor at Berkeley, or doesn’t as a professor at Brooklyn College. Keeping all of these threads together can be confusing, especially when the alterations between each alter ego only vary slightly.

As each narrative unfolds, the impression of a wider vision reveals itself. One that while being concerned with typical Auster themes (loss, failure, absent fathers,) has shifted toward a more expansive, character-driven landscape. This shift is perhaps most evident in Auster’s decision to place Archie at the center of a large, continually evolving and interactive cast; traditionally his protagonists are cut into secluded, isolated figures. The result of this distinctive change is that Auster has allowed himself the time and space in which to bring his characters to life, many in ways not seen in his previous works. Ultimately this has enabled him, and the reader, to engage with a more humanistic, less theoretical approach, to the issues he so frequently deals with.

Towards the latter stages of the novel, as the ‘60s reach a crescendo and Archie approaches adulthood, so too do the politics of that fractious decade come more sharply into focus. Auster chooses to render this by putting under the spotlight the fallout from the Newark Riots of July 1967, and the Columbia University Student Protests of 1968. And while strangely much of this is channelled through the journalist Archie, this approach makes sense when you consider how each of them share such similar political views. The tactic also allows Auster to effect this Archie away from the more immediate impacts of the riots and the protests, something that is seen most clearly seen in the growing schisms that develop in his relationships. The spiraling situation causes much anguish for Archie; he ruminates how he could not: “recognize himself when he looked at his face in the mirror, which was also true of the thoughts he was thinking whenever he looked inside his head, since they were mostly the thoughts of a stranger as well: cynical thoughts, splenetic thoughts, disgusted thoughts that had nothing to do with the person he had once been.”

The lengthy exploration of the Columbia protests contribute to a sizable chunk of this nearly 900-page tome, slowing its otherwise brisk pace. This prolonged section can, in some ways, be viewed as a broader comment on today’s political climate, warning us against the vitriolic division that has so often defined our past. But by putting the struggles of the era under a microscope, Auster adds weight to 4 3 2 1’s themes of interconnectivity and consequence, tightly bounding it with a sense of despair and existentiality. This serves a more symbolic purpose, one that marks the end of the four Archie’s (and the 60s) fading, youthful idealism, and leads him toward the ambiguities of adulthood, in a harsher, less optimistic era. These attributes add up to a novel that may well be Auster’s most ambitious to date, a clever re-imagining of the more traditional socio-realist novels of a bygone age. Engrossing, thoughtful, it is in a way celebratory of life, its endless possibilities, and of everything we can be.

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Published by Henry Holt
Hardcover | 866 pp. | $32.50

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