4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster. Henry Holt and Co., 866 pp., $32.50.
In his novel “The Happy Death,” Camus writes of “the cruel paradox by which we always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love — first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage.”
We do the same thing to writers. Jonathan Safran Foer was never the genius that the ecstatic reception of his funny, maudlin debut, “Everything Is Illuminated” suggested, nor is he as risible as the literati find him now. (Though I feel obliged to say that parts of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” are excruciating.) The same goes for another Brooklyn writer: Paul Auster, long lauded for his addictive post-post-modernist novels, seriously playful in the style of Martin Amis or Italo Calvino, but then turned against, at some invisible moment, culminating in critic James Wood’s mocking incineration of his body of work several years ago in The New Yorker.
What happened? Auster’s “New York Trilogy” (1985-86), which comprised his first three novels, is brilliant. In it, he borrowed the language of detective fiction, then ripe for rehabilitation, and mingled it with games borrowed from high literature. The effect was magical and grounded at once, playing on the crime novel’s essential engagement with identity — what it means to search for answers that can only ever half-arrive.
In subsequent novels, Auster settled into a familiar pattern. Nearly all of them involve mistaken identity, mysterious texts and mischievous self-references. Slowly, as the sample size increased, it dawned on readers that the author’s puzzles might simply be meaningless — cheap shortcuts to gravity. Auster remained capable of powerful work (“The Book of Illusions,” from 2002, is a stunner), but in his lesser novels there was the fatal sense that he didn’t know any more about the elusive meaning of his stories than we did.
Few authors are consistently great, and to judge Auster by the intermittent failure of his tricks is to forget his first and most significant gift: for storytelling. It’s present in fierce abundance in “4 3 2 1,” his huge, absorbing, moving new novel, which, at nearly 900 pages and coming after a silence of seven years, feels like a bid to re-enter the first tier of American authors.
“4 3 2 1” is about Archie Ferguson, born in Newark in 1947, as Auster was. For a while it follows Archie in conventional narrative fashion, introducing his father, an ambitious store owner, and his mother, a photographer, and their complex, well-drawn families. Then there’s a dramatic change — the novel splits into four parallel timelines. Four Archies, four fates. In one his family grows very rich; in another his father dies unexpectedly early; in another he becomes a writer. We watch Archie lose his various virginities, and meet the same people in different ways, in each scenario slipping past paths he has taken elsewhere.
What emerges is an imperfect but greatish book. The central thesis — that life depends on chance, on random moments of choice — seems too obvious to need expression. “4 3 2 1” is far too long, and its prose, though chatty and readable, is often amateurish. (Archie can’t just read a book, it’s an “immense tome by blacklisted former journalist William Shirer, which won the National Book Award in 1961,” the kind of info dump sentence bewilderingly far beneath Auster’s gifts.) On the other hand, his company from line to line is a joy, and each of Archie’s four destinies, stories spilling across stories, is genuinely engaging.
They’re just not always profound. After “The New York Trilogy,” highbrow critics thought they were getting a highbrow author, but in truth Auster is often closer to the great American middlebrow sentimentalists — Richard Russo, Michael Chabon. Broad, appealing and flawed, “4 3 2 1” is an honest revelation of who the author actually may be, as both writer and man.
It also feels strangely like the last in some procession. How many of these books are left, these great panoramas, the straight white male 20th century as recorded by the 20th century straight white male? It’s 2017. Roth is retired. Updike is dead. “4 3 2 1” is characterized by that aging writer’s poignant compulsion to name the earth before leaving it. Auster reproduces, with faithful love, the titles of forgotten movies, the makeup of certain Dodgers outfields, the lapsed schoolyard customs of 1953. Such novels have always had obvious faults, but they could also be magnificent. To me it felt weirdly moving to read this final artifact of the grand old male narcissism — one last time, four more times.