“He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all of possibilities of time.” — Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”
One could imagine Borges, who declared that the basic devices of fantastic literature are four-fold—the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double—as personal timekeeper and Virgil-visioned guide to Paul Auster, who for the past half a century has trafficked in existential loops and slipknots, identity crises and vanishing acts. Auster, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, writing in the first person or third person, has always haunted his own writings, sort of as the negative imprint of a splitting point.You could argue that his canon as a whole, comprises a jigsaw autobiography of shadows and illusions, obliquely referring back to its source: an author by the name of Paul Auster who doesn’t exist ( the “I-is-somebody-else” of Rimbaud.) This is his metaphysical stock-in-trade, and in 4 3 2 1, his first novel in seven years, Auster strives to capture it in his most epic manner to date.
Divided into the four different lives of a single individual, Archie Ferguson (each chapter, in rotation, covers the parallel tracks of Ferguson-1, Ferguson-2, Ferguson-3, and Ferguson-4), the novel plays on one of the most relatable and hauntingly human of notions: What if? What if I would have gotten home three minutes earlier, what if I had taken the train instead of the bus, what if I hadn’t walked in when I did, what if I had followed through on my true passion? Multiple choices cultivating controlled and random paths, connect-the-dots done in Braille, and the stories and the memories accumulate and this becomes your life, the one you know. What about the other lives, the ones you don’t know, the ones unlived or lived out by shadow-incarnations that function like mysterious rumors on the cusp of consciousness?
Auster dives into the speculative deep end, nearly 900 pages deep, and does so with the lungpower of Thomas Wolfe, as there is a clause-sprawling, locomotive-chested quality at work, vigorous ribbons of prose corresponding with the panoramic timbre in which Auster covers not only Archie’s lives, but the shifting identity of America in the middle of the 20th century (specifically New York and New Jersey, from where Ferguson hails). The time-capsule cataloguing of names, dates, events, etc., provides a rich, fascinating and vitally informative overview of American culture, while occasionally dipping into tedium, i.e., clotted passages with respiratory issues.
Auster’s trademark motifs—the nature of chance, loss, identity, sports, cinema, and literature—are illuminated from various angles, while the serrated pangs of first love (and youth-inflamed longing) generate some of his most poignant passages: “It could never end. The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from the book, and it would always be summer so long as they didn’t breathe too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were nineteen and were finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying good-bye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.” Or, the life-altering phenomena of one’s debut make-out session: “Ferguson took Gloria into the backyard and kissed her, and because she kissed him back, they went on kissing for a good long while, far longer than he imagined they would, perhaps ten or twelve minutes, and when Gloria slipped her tongue into his mouth after the fourth or fifth minute, everything suddenly changed, and Ferguson understood that he was living in a new world and would never set foot in the old one again.”
Amy Schneiderman–“an embodiment of her city, not only in her confidence and quickness of mind but also and especially in her voice . . . the third-generation New York Jewish voice”–plays a significant role in each of Ferguson’s destinies (girlfriend, best friend, step-sister, step-cousin), while the bond between Ferguson and his mother carries across all four lives like an unwavering firelight. Then there’s Laurel and Hardy and their endlessly renewable fool’s goldmine. “It pleased Ferguson immediately that those were the names of the real men who played the make-believe characters of Laurel and Hardy in the films, for Laurel and Hardy were always Laurel and Hardy no matter what circumstances they happened to find themselves in, whether they lived in America or another country, whether they lived in the past or the present, whether they were furniture-movers or fish-mongers or Christmas-tree salesman or soldiers or convicts or carpenters or street musicians or stable hands or prospectors in the Wild West, and the fact that they were always the same even when they were different seemed to make them more real than any other characters in movies, for if Laurel and Hardy were always Laurel and Hardy . . . that must have meant they were eternal.”
Auster, as a young writer in Paris in the 1970s, was bequeathed the following nugget by the writer, Edmond Jabés: “The only thing that is really subversive and powerful is clarity” (which brings to mind a pearl once dropped by Charles Mingus: “Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can plan weird, that’s easy . . . Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”). Compared to others who specialize in conceptual hijinks (Borges, Cortazar, Danielewski, to name a few), Auster is perhaps the most accessible, almost “old-fashioned” in his storytelling approach. That holds true for 4 3 2 1, which numerous critics have deemed his magnum opus. Scope-wise, perhaps, but I prefer to view his entire legacy, from the New York Trilogy to Mr. Vertigo to The Book of Illusions to 4 3 2 1, as installments in an ongoing, thematically-interconnected saga, one in which an author named Paul Auster sacrificed his identity to the gods of solitude.
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of his work, visit johnbiscello.com