I had yet to read any Paul Auster when I saw 4 3 2 1 on the 2017 Man Booker shortlist, and I didn’t jump on it right away, mostly because of its sheer size, this brick of a book at 1,070 pages. I don’t read a lot of long books because I’m not a fast reader and can be easily distracted, so I figured this was a pass, but then I read a synopsis and found myself intrigued by the structural conceit of telling one character’s story four times within the same book. Had I not signed up for a half Cannonball to give myself enough cushion for a few longer reads like this, I may have skipped over it this year entirely, but I’m glad I didn’t. I dashed through it in a little over a week, probably a record for me for a book of this length, and that reflects how much I enjoyed this read.
Auster tells the coming-of-age story of Ferguson, a boy born just after WWII in Newark, New Jersey, and he tells it four times in parallel with different variations that widen over time, showing how things can change based on one decision vs. another, on a stroke of good luck vs. bad, on events entirely out of our own hands. The supporting characters of family and friends often remained the same between stories, with changes in importance and temperament and the details of their own lives, and just when I felt I was getting lost, Auster would throw in subtle reminders of what had happened earlier in that particular thread, enough to help keep everything straight without becoming repetitive and ruining the ride.
I worried as I read the first several pages, thinking this was going to be a long impossible slog, not that I didn’t enjoy the writing but instead that his paragraphs are thick, sometimes two or three full pages, with long sentences full of descriptive detail that could become heavy but instead give it an ecstatic quality, pushing the pace along rather than weighing it down. The narrative was packed with cultural references to reflect his characters’ interests in books and movies and music, falling right in the nerdy sweet spot of my own interests. There were a lot of little surprises that had me exclaiming “Oh!” out loud as I zipped through the pages, sometimes from unexpected humor, sometimes from sudden jolts of grief or cruelty, much like life itself. I still remember the moment when I felt the story fracturing into its four paths, and it was magical.
He lost me a bit in two places. One was a long chapter in the second half, recounting endless details of a student demonstration at Columbia in the late 60’s. It’s not just that I don’t care about the 60’s — like any era, no one cares as much as the people who were young and caught up in the excitement — but the momentum sagged, really the only part of the book that felt too slow and the only hiccup for me until the very end, when it came apart for me a bit as he explained more than necessary, wrapping things up a bit too neatly and losing some of the accumulated power. Neither of those issues ruined the book for me as sometimes happens, but it pulled me back from “this was one of the best books I’ve ever read” to “this was a great book that I’m glad I read”.