The Novel as Math Problem

As a formal exercise, Paul Auster’s 4321 is impeccable. As a story, it’s curiously cold.

4321 illo.

Maddie Edgar

Paul Auster’s 4321 is nearly 900 pages long. When I finished the novel, I had a thicket of John Nash–looking notes, a persistent twitch in my left eyelid, and little sense of whether I had just experienced a monumental work of art or a very long con.

The book opens on Ellis Island, where a Jewish immigrant from Minsk surnamed Reznikoff becomes first “Rockefeller” on the advice of a friend, and then “Ferguson” at the immigration station due to a Yiddish-English misfire. In America, the first Ferguson has three sons, and one of these sons has one son. The novel comprises four alternate story lines mapping the life of this latter child, Archibald “Archie” Ferguson. These lives are lived in a cluster of towns in northern New Jersey, with supporting roles by New York and Paris, and are focused around the interactions of two primary families, the Fergusons and the Schneidermans, who are originally connected through Ferguson’s mother’s first job in the Schneiderman photo studio.

Anyone who has experienced Paul Auster’s hall-of-mirrors postmodern experiments knows to be on her guard for funny business, and it takes time to acclimate to the novel’s logic. The structure makes perfect sense once you get used to it, but the first few chapters open in ways that don’t immediately reveal we are being treated to four separate realities (even if you read the jacket copy). There are four Archies: Archie 1, 2, 3, and 4, let’s call them. His alternate realities are delineated with chapter numbering—1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4—and so on, alternating sections averaging about 30 pages each, all the way to 7.4. It’s not an egregious spoiler to say that some of these alternative lives are shorter than others; when one version of Ferguson sputters out, his pages go blank, the chapter number appearing thereafter in sequence on a blank page, a kind of terse epitaph.

Readers will acclimate, but that’s not to say they won’t need a crib sheet. The respective courses and outcomes of Ferguson’s lives are different, but they are arrived at by relatively minor variations on several geographic and familial themes, which invite mix-ups (I had to make messy charts on the flyleaves of my copy to keep track of everyone). The Schneiderman family is central to each of Ferguson’s lives, but the roles each Schneiderman plays differ. In one line, it’s Gil Schneiderman who features more prominently; in another, his brother Dan. In each reality, Dan’s daughter Amy is the major presence, sometimes romantic, sometimes familial, or both, in Archie’s life. The true pillar is Archie’s intelligent, spunky, loving mother, Rose. Chapter 1.1 begins, “His mother’s name was Rose, and when he was big enough to tie his shoes and stop wetting the bed, he was going to marry her.” (Mother-son love, the non-Oedipal kind, is a theme.)

We grasp the logic of Auster’s system before too long, but its purpose is a mystery that carries us to the end of the gargantuan novel. In the first half, very occasional references to something tantalizing called The Terrestrial Book of Life kept me in the game. I was hoping that the whole project was going to conclude somewhere really cosmic and weird, maybe even in outer space. This was foolish, because I have read some of Auster’s other novels, and his mysteries tend to begin and end with the text. It takes several hundred pages of 4321 to realize that, in one sense, you’ve been had. Reading Auster doesn’t typically inspire the use of cliché, but this novel is really about the journey, and not the destination.

I think I really like this novel, but I had a variety of uncharitable thoughts when I was reading it. Some of these are perhaps a function of my own attributes. For example, early on I thought to myself: “Truly there is no giant book about baseball and the suburbs that an eminent male writer cannot get published.” This is ultimately a novel about a young man having an uncanny amount of artistic success at a very young age, in several different permutations, and this may be tough going for aspiring writers. Sometimes I rolled my eyes at the fact that each Archie was so brilliant, and so confident in his writing—whether as a critic, journalist, or fiction writer, and despite his excessive protestations about his work—as to publish great works received rapturously in each of his primary lives. He worries about money in each timeline, but unexpected windfalls see him through. If he isn’t getting into Columbia (Archie 1) or Princeton (Archie 4) without superhuman effort, he’s going to Paris (Archie 3) with a beautifully curated Great Books syllabus and living in the maid’s room of his parents’ friend, a glamorous intellectual who personally tutors Archie and helps to get his first book published. “Baby boomers got everything,” I muttered, unfairly.

This last reading, obviously, has more to do with me than with Paul Auster, but for readers who are familiar with his memoiristic writing, some details of Archie’s lives read as autographical to the extent that you wonder whether Paul Auster has not written a very long chronicle of his own genius. And in that case, Archie’s combination of oft-emphasized goodness, modesty, and hard work become a little much. The various Archies come of age in the late 1960s, and the tumultuous American political climate, both the domestic struggle for civil rights and the disastrous intervention in Vietnam, are a motif of the novel, which focuses on the student sit-ins and clashes with the police at Columbia. I was struck by the way the doomsday mood of the Archies’ young adulthood mirrors the mood in 2016.

All of the Archies are impeccable in their liberal politics—sometimes to the disdain of their true-left associates—and their moral character is invariably sound, regardless of their occasional shoplifting (Archies 1 and 3) or dalliances with prostitutes (Archie 3). This goodness is expressed by one of Archie 4’s lovers, Evie (formerly his high school teacher):

She was the only person who fully grasped the nature of the havoc roiling inside him, the contradictory muddle of hard, unforgiving judgments and raging contempt for big-dollar American greed combined with an overall gentleness of spirit, his unstinting love for the people he cared about, his good-boy rectitude and out-of-step clumsiness with his own heart.

Or here is Archie 3:

Whenever Ferguson was on top of himself and not under himself, which was about half the time, there were few people in the world as sweet as he was, as loving as he was, such sweetness and transparent love emanating from his eyes that few could resist him.

Archie always strikes the right tone on matters of difference, be it gender or race or sexuality, to an extent that seems unusual for a young person from the suburbs. For example, Archie 1 shakes his head at his girlfriend Amy’s lack of confidence:

[I]f such a person as Amy Schneiderman could succumb to questioning the body that belonged to her in that way, what about the fat girls and the homely girls and the deformed girls who didn’t even have a chance? Not only were men and women not the same, Ferguson concluded, but it was more difficult to be a woman than a man, and if he should ever forget that, he told himself, then the gods should come down from their mountain and pluck out the eyes from his head.

This goodness is expressed with a comic juxtaposition when the high school–age Archie 3, who has been visiting a black prostitute named Julie, learns that Julie is no longer working, and is offered an appointment with another black woman. Young Archie is indignant: “Black girl—what’s that got to do with it? I thought you went for black girls. I go for all girls. I just happened to like Julie.”

There are reasons for this portrayal of the Archies. The book is about the journey, but looking back on these passages, armed with the “why” and “what” that can only be gleaned from reading to the end, it makes sense that Archie might be painted rather heroically. (Sorry to be cryptic, but Paul Auster invariably requires some acrobatics for anyone trying to efficiently summarize without spoilers.)

Another characteristic that may or may not be intentional is the rhythm of the novel’s sentences, which are very long and breathless with commas. They seem strangely awkward from a writer who wrote the beautiful measured prose of The Invention of Solitude. This is a characteristic passage from 4321:

All during the trip home, the other boys in the car whooped it up in a high-octane surge of manic good cheer, again and again reliving the last ten seconds of the game, congratulating themselves for having escaped the wrath of the avenging crowd, conducting pretend interviews with the still incredulous and ceaselessly smiling Schaeffer, laughing, laughing, so much laughter that the very air was thick with jubilation, but Ferguson took no part in it, couldn’t take part in it because he had no desire to laugh, even though Schaeffer’s last-second shot had been one of the funniest, most unlikely things he had ever seen, but the game had been ruined for him by what had happened after the game, and the punch still hurt, and the reason why the punch had been thrown hurt even more than the pain still throbbing in his arm.

Paradoxically, these sentences made me itch, but they also helped propel me through the novel. They gallop, like the very passing of time.

Curiously, 4321 reminded me of nothing so much as another recent novel that is very long and very odd—Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a book I ended up disliking but which galloped you along in a similar way, so that you weren’t always sure why you were reading but (incorrectly) assumed were being led to some great reward. That novel is also focused on a too-good-to-be true character; but whereas Yanagihara’s Jude is a lesson that no amount of adoration for a preternaturally good, hardworking person by his friends and lovers can make up for a childhood full of hideous abuse, Auster is operating from the obverse position: that there’s nothing a preternaturally good, hardworking person with the unflagging love of his mother and a reasonably stable upbringing in middle-class or better circumstances can’t do. (Unless he accidentally dies, of course—that’s the big X-factor).

This novel is rich and detailed. It’s about accidents of fate, and the people and works of art and experiences that shape our lives even before our birth—what reader doesn’t vibrate at that frequency? Despite the sad things that happen, however, it did not move me—the way it is structured makes it more of a math problem, and I was too busy making charts to fall in love. As a formal exercise, it’s impeccable, each life weighing as much as the other despite the accidents that shorten or prolong it. But when there are four possible versions of each life, how do you know which one to celebrate, and which to mourn?

4321 by Paul Auster. Henry Holt and Co.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.