As soon as I first heard about it, I knew that I had to read Paul Auster’s apparently semi-autobiographical novel 4 3 2 1: not only did the author grow up as a secular Jew from suburban Essex County, New Jersey, as I did, but he’s also a true contemporary, having been born in Beth Israel Hospital in Newark only two days after I was born there. So I clearly had to read the novel, despite its length of nearly 900 pages. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should read it, although there are some good reasons why you might want to — as well as some reasons to stay away from it.
I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers, but I do have to explain one thing about the title. (You can learn other information about the title if and when you read the book.) This coming-of-age novel is actually four novels in one, all taking place simultaneously in four different versions of reality. The apparent premise at the beginning is along the lines of “Suppose a character made a different decision at point A. How would that affect everything at point B, much further into the character’s life?” You can imagine various ways to take this premise, ranging from the theory that it wouldn’t matter because greater forces would smooth out the ripples to the butterfly-effect idea that one small change would have astonishingly large consequences down the road. There’s a little of both in Auster’s novel. The characters are mostly the same in all four versions, but the story arcs are very different. That aspect of the book was intriguing and successful.
I had several issues with 4 3 2 1. The first issue was that I really wanted a two-dimensional layout for the book, in order to read it both ways:
- horizontally (i.e., first the four versions of Chapter 1, then the four versions of Chapter 2, and so forth), as it was written; and
- vertically (i.e., following one of the four narratives all the way to the end, then the next one all the way to the end, and so forth).
So I was looking for something like the following schematic:
Storyline #1 Storyline #2 Storyline #3 Storyline #4 Chapter 1 … … … … Chapter 2 … … … … Chapter 3 … … … … Chapter 4 … … … … Chapter 5 … … … … Chapter 6 … … … …
Then I could read it both horizontally and vertically.
But I was stuck with the horizontal option, since I was mostly listening to the audiobook version, which meant that I was forced to switch contexts after each version of each chapter, remembering what was happening and what the characters were like at this point in their parallel lives. I managed. When I read some of the dead-tree version, it wasn’t that much easier to take the vertical option anyway.
So much for issue #1 — a genuine problem that I couldn’t overcome, but fortunately it wasn’t dispositive.
My second issue turned out to be illusory. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist, Archie Ferguson [“What kind of name is that for a New Jersey Jew?” we hear you cry; read the book and find out], has experiences in northeastern New Jersey and New York that I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting with my own. There are dozens of references to specific places — Newark Academy, Columbia High School, West Orange HS, Montclair HS, Fieldston, the Claremont Diner, South Mountain Reservation, Tabatchnicks, Pal’s, Gruning’s, just to recall a few off the top of my head — and of course the political events of the ‘60s. These references kept resonating with me and made the novel more real. The portrayals of Newark, Manhattan, and the suburbs in various decades all rang true to me, even when I thought I had forgotten the details. I was initially annoyed at how all the major characters are nominally Jewish and yet nothing actually religious occurs, but then I realized that that exactly mirrors my own experience as culturally but not religiously Jewish. So this turned out not to be an issue at all.
Before we get to the bottom line, I should mention what struck me most positively: the interplay between external events and character development, which Auster sometimes shows as influenced by the events and sometimes independent of them. And South Orange has apparently changed in alarming ways since the ’60s, if I’m to believe this article.
Now we get to my third and most important issue: the ending of the novel. It was so disappointing that it ruined the whole book for me. Of course I can’t tell you specifically what it was, but I should say that it was only one small step better than the kind of “it was all a dream” ending that everyone hates. It wasn’t quite that, but in the same ballpark. You have been warned.