4 3 2 1:

Paul Auster’s New Postmodern Masterpiece

First, turn off your computer or smart phone—yes, right now—grab 4 3 2 1, and plow straight through it. True, it’s almost 900 pages long, but trust me, you won’t want it to end. I’ll just wait here.

Was that not the most incredible reading experience since Infinite Jest?

Paul Auster created a postmodern masterwork thirty years ago in The New York Trilogy, three loosely related novellas gathered together under one cover. (I “discovered” the Trilogy for myself just a year ago; it converted me into an instant Auster superfan, which in turn brought me to 4 3 2 1.) The Trilogy establishes multiple fascinating narrative layers from page 1—or actually, even before that. See the cover.

It features Paul Auster’s name and cartoon portrait, complete with detective-ish magnifying glass. A hand-drawn map depicts accurately drawn actual New York streets walked by characters from the book, deliberately blurring the real/fictional binary. The cover also depicts the three volumes collected here as three separate volumes—illustrations of books that in turn have their own illustrations, self-conscious pictures of other pictures. Then, at the beginning of the book, a stagnated mystery writer—remember “Paul Auster” and his magnifying glass from the cover?—named Quinn receives a middle-of-the-night phone call for “Paul Auster. Of the Auster Detective Agency.” He replies truthfully that he’s not that person—more fully and tellingly, “There is no Paul Auster here”—then regrets saying so. The next night he receives another identical call, but this time, prepared, he answers, “This is Auster speaking.” (Note the double meaning: “This is Auster speaking” indeed, for isn’t his name on the cover?) So, right at the start, we have: 1) the “real” Paul Auster, the flesh-and-blood person whose name is on the cover; 2) “Paul Auster” depicted on the cover, some kind of detective?; 3) the “Paul Auster” of the “Auster Detective Agency,” who may or may not exist; 4) a bored mystery writer who may or may not be a representation of the cover-detective “Paul Auster” and/or of the “real” Paul Auster; and 5) the “Paul Auster” who Quinn pretends to be. Incredibly efficient postmodern pyrotechnics!

4 3 2 1’s postmodern genius isn’t apparent right away; it reveals itself gradually, in the long game. It begins with an old familiar joke. Isaac Reznikoff, grandfather of our main protagonist Archibald Isaac Ferguson, is about to land at Ellis Island. Another immigrant asks his name, and Isaac tells him. No no no, says the man, you need a more American-sounding name for your new American life. “Tell them you’re Rockefeller. You can’t go wrong with that.” But when poor Isaac’s turn before the clerk comes up, he can’t remember that other name. “Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.” Auster introduces one of the main themes of the book here, identity’s randomness/contingency, in the stealthy guise of a worn-out old joke.

The title itself, “4 3 2 1,” refers to this concept. Auster essentially applies “multiple-universe” theory—the idea that infinite numbers of multiple universes/realities actually exist and operate, forever independent and ignorant of each other—to the deeply imagined life of one young man, Archie Ferguson. Actually, four Fergusons. This passage from the final pages crystallizes the concept of the book:

Not one person with three names, he said to himself that afternoon, which happened to be January 1, 1970, the seventieth anniversary of his grandfather’s arrival in America (if family legend was to be believed), the man who had become neither Ferguson nor Rockefeller and had been gunned down in a Chicago leather-goods warehouse in 1923, but for the purposes of the story Ferguson would begin with his grandfather and the joke, and once the joke was told in the first paragraph his grandfather would no longer be a young man with three possible names but one name, neither X nor Rockefeller but Ferguson, and then, after telling the story of how his parents met, were married, and he himself was born (all based on the anecdotes he had heard from his mother over the years), Ferguson would turn the proposition on its head, and rather than pursue the notion of one person with three names, he would invent three other versions of himself and tell their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story, since he too would become a fictionalized version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson.

Hence too the chapter titles.

The first number is the era of Ferguson’s life. The second is the “version”/instance/incarnation of Ferguson. Thus, “1.1” covers the birth and early childhood of Ferguson #1; “1.4” covers the same era for Ferguson #4. The 2s account for Ferguson’s tween years, the 3s for his teens, and the 4s for his young adulthood. Like the traditional bildungsroman, Auster’s novel ends with his protagonist Ferguson having become a fully developed, now-intimately-familiar man commencing an independent adult life. That is, Ferguson #4 has reached this point; it’s this Ferguson’s concept for a book called 4 3 2 1 that is quoted above. (Ferguson #4 clearly resembles and represents Auster, with little or no attempt at disguising that fact.) The other three Fergusons…well, their life trajectories go different directions, which I won’t spoil for you, though I can say that they overlap Ferguson #4’s in matters large and small. All four Fergusons feel out of step with/not quite at home in the world; remain religiously skeptical and nonobservant; love and lust intensely; read and write voraciously; love sports, especially baseball and basketball; are sickened by America’s race wars and involvement in Vietnam; can’t get enough of the movies; and have complicated relationships with their parents and other extended-family members.

The “four-Fergusons” concept is not just an innovation of literary form, original and striking as that would be in itself. It’s an important underlying theme in all the Fergusons’ stories—the idea that not only are all these related-but-different Archie Fergusons possible, based on differing choices, events, and chances, but that in a sense they do exist. Even at a young age Archie intuits this truth: “Ferguson was not yet five years old, but he already understood that the world consisted of two realms, the visible and the invisible, and that the things he couldn’t see were often more real than the things he could.” Archie goes to Columbia University and Princeton and no university at all. He goes to Paris alone, with a woman, with his parents. His love life takes many widely varied shapes, simultaneously. He lives and he dies, and it all counts. After one particularly hard blow from life, one of the Archies muses:

“The world wasn’t real anymore. Everything in it was a fraudulent copy of what it should have been, and everything that happened in it shouldn’t have been happening. For a long time afterward, Ferguson lived under the spell of this illusion, sleepwalking through his days and struggling to fall asleep at night, sick of a world he had stopped believing in, doubting everything that presented itself to his eyes. Mrs. Costello asked him to pay attention, but he didn’t have to listen to her now, since she was only an actress trying to impersonate his teacher, and when his friend Jeff Balsoni made the extraordinary, uncalled-for sacrifice of giving Ferguson his Ted Williams baseball card, the rarest card among the hundreds in the Topps collection, Ferguson thanked him for the gift, put the card in his pocket, and then tore it up at home. It was possible to do such things now. Before November third, they would have been inconceivable to him, but an unreal world was much bigger than a real world, and there was more than enough room in it to be yourself and not yourself at the same time.”

We’ve all wondered how our lives might be different if certain key events had gone differently. 4 3 2 1 takes the concept and runs with it. This book instantly joins my private list of the Five Greatest Novels of all time. Read it, and let it join yours.

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Brian Cowlishaw grew up in rural Idaho, then earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Oklahoma in 1998. He has taught and published on many areas of literature and popular culture, especially science fiction and fantasy. He is a Harper Voyager Super Reader, reviewing advance reader copies for the publisher. He is a professor of English at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is an avid gamer and a big fan of all things related to India. Email: cowlishb@nsuok.edu. Twitter: @BrianCowlishaw. Blog: biggora.blogspot.com.

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