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The Great American Novel, but not as you know it

4321 by Paul Auster is a novel about Archie Ferguson, American grandson of a Jewish immigrant. Born in 1958 to hard-working parents, he grows up, negotiates adolescence, plays baseball, gets to know his extended family, lives through the major events of the 20th century. So far, so predictable. But because this is Auster, there is a twist: this is not one linear narrative; it is four stories, four lives in one. Same boy, four different childhoods, four different paths. Remarkably broad in scope yet fantastically rich and detailed, this is Paul Auster’s post-modern version of The Great American Novel.

The book starts with a joke. Ferguson’s Russian grandfather, on arrival in Ellis Island in 1900, is advised by a compatriot that he can’t go wrong if he gives his name as ‘Rockefeller’. By the time he reaches the front of the queue he has forgotten his alias and says in Yiddish he has forgotten (‘Ikh hob fargessen’). Hence he is given the very non-Jewish name Ferguson and his life in the New World spools out, eventually leading to the birth of his grandson Archie.

It is a great doorstep of a book and tempting to read in lightweight kindle format. Don’t. You will need to keep your wits about you and you’ll want to keep flicking back and forward to remind yourself who in this huge cast of characters is who and what they did in their previous incarnation. Is this the one where Ferguson’s mother gives up her job and becomes a bored housewife or is it the one when she becomes a famous photographer? Is this the one where he falls out of a tree or is something more serious about to happen? Didn’t his father just get burned to a crisp in an insurance fire? Different deaths and different loves are threaded throughout against a backdrop of tumultuous historical events. The writing is dazzling, some sentences unstoppably running on and on over two or more pages which has an unsettling effect – you want to stop and savour it – but then perhaps life is like that. I would quote from it, but I couldn’t find a sentence short enough.

Ferguson is an appealing character – thoughtful, bright, sensitive – and in each iteration his coming of age process offers the reader something new. It’s clever, illuminating, ambitious and bold, and if you are up for a challenge and have a long stretch of time to devote to it (woe betide you if you put it aside for a couple of days) then go for it. I loved Auster’s dark and mysterious New York Trilogy but 4321 was probably 3 novels too many for me.

4321 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber, 1088 pages.

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