Man at His Best

Opinion: Paul Auster Conveys A Single Life Into Four Parellel Forms

His most ambitious and greatest novel yet.

BY Christopher Beha | Feb 9, 2017 | Books


In the last decades of the 20th century, Paul Auster was the coolest American novelist around. His books—slim metafictional puzzlers and existentialist meditations on the absurdity of the human condition—were philosophically rich in a European style, but also quintessentially American, with countless references to Hawthorne, Melville and Poe (not to mention lots and lots of baseball). These days, the literary roost is ruled by the social realism of Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith on one hand and the “autofiction” of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante on the other, but if you spend any time on a New York subway south of 14th Street, you will see plenty of well-thumbed copies of Auster’s The New York Trilogy and The Music of Chance.

Auster turns 70 this year, and although he has the Voice of God baritone of a lifelong tobacco connoisseur, he stuck to e-cigarettes while we talked on the second floor of the Brooklyn townhouse he shares with his wife, Siri Hustvedt. (An accomplished novelist herself, Hustvedt was on the first floor, being interviewed about her new essay collection.) That vape stick may be the most sophisticated piece of technology Auster owns: he doesn’t use email, and he still writes all his books longhand; this must have been a particularly arduous process for his latest novel, 4 3 2 1 (Henry Holt & Co, SGD48*), since it clocks in at 860 pages—more than twice the length of anything he’s written before. He wrote the book in a “great rush,” he told me, working seven days a week for three years, finishing each day too exhausted to do anything but collapse in front of the television.

“It was an improvisation,” he said.

“It felt like a kind of dance.” It’s a remarkable statement to make about a novel that’s not just very long but also very intricate. Auster has always been interested in life’s inflection points, those chance events—a wrong number dialled, a wager on the flip of a card—that send a person whose life was running smoothly on one track careening off in some unexpected direction.

With 4 3 2 1, he has hit upon his most ingenious expression of that theme: Archie Ferguson is born in suburban New Jersey in 1947, and over the course of the book he lives four parallel lives, told in alternating order. In one, Ferguson’s father dies in a store fire; in another, he merely grows distant and inscrutable. One Ferguson attends Columbia University during the student uprisings of 1968 (as Auster himself did); another forgoes college entirely to bum around Paris (Auster waited until after graduation to do that). Each Ferguson feels the literary calling that has been the defining feature of Auster’s own life, but it takes different forms—one works as a journalist and a translator, another is a film critic, a third writes fiction. Minor occurrences in early chapters turn into the difference between life and death by the end of the book, when the four Fergusons are finally brought back together in a stroke that is at once structurally inventive and surprisingly moving.

The parallel lives conceit allows Auster to cover huge swaths of postwar American culture, making 4 3 2 1 read like one of those big social dramas—with reflections on race, sexuality and political awakening—while also offering the philosophical exploration of one man’s fate that Auster’s fans have come to expect. Longtime readers will appreciate walk-on roles by about half a dozen characters from previous Auster novels. These callbacks add to the general sense that 4 3 2 1 is the culmination of a long career.

“Maybe,” he said, when I asked if it read that way to him. He took another drag on that smokeless cigarette. “But I hope I’m not finished yet.”

*Denotes translated price. From Esquire Singapore's February 2017 issue