4 3 2 1, Paul Auster’s new novel, and his first in seven years, is a Bildungsroman by way of Borges; his Garden of Forking Paths spreading across a suburb in New Jersey, and a chunk of Manhattan. Briefly put, it is the story of Archibald Ferguson, a kid growing up in Newark — more or less contemporaneously with Auster himself. A microscopically detailed novel that takes up a plethora of topics from baseball to the Vietnam War, Auster’s novel perhaps bears more resemblance to David Copperfield than ‘City of Glass’.
Of course, Auster has a trick up his sleeve. 4 3 2 1 isn’t just the story of Archibald Ferguson. rather, it is the story of four Archibald Ferguson — or perhaps it’s four stories of a single Archie. Auster uses 4 3 2 1 as a space to explore alternate histories (what would have happened had Germany won the war, say) on a personal level. What would have happened had Archie’s father not stayed late at the shop that day? Quite a lot, it seems — early on, one of the Ferguson-fathers is killed in a blaze started by his brother, as an insurance scam. In another one of Auster’s forking paths, the blaze burns down the family business. In yet another, it does not happen at all. One studies at Columbia, and becomes involved in the protests of 1968. Another wins a prestigious scholarship to Princeton. Yet another flees to Paris after being caught stealing paperbacks to pay for a trip to a prostitute. These alternate Archies live out quite separate lives, love quite separate loves, and follow quite separate paths.
Or do they? The alternate lives of Archibald Ferguson are curiously similar. In each of them, the general trajectory of his life is the same, moving from Norman Rockwell painting (picket fence; baseball) to Simon and Garfunkel song (Manhattan; existential angst). The countdown in the novel’s title is prophetic, three of the four Fergusons being killed off before the novel reaches its end, but on the way each of them is a talented baseball player; each of them is a youthful connoisseur of European arthouse cinema; each of them becoming a writer after a fashion.
All this presents a rather depressing view of human potential. Fans of 18th century literature might remember Tristram Shandy’s father — his hobby horse, his peccadillo, was names. Apparently, if “ever malignant spirit took pleasure, or busied itself in traversing the purposes of mortal man,” said spirit would take the form of the name Tristram. Perhaps the same can be said for people named Archibald Ferguson. Whatever happens to them, they will always be youthful baseball players, and aspiring writers with impeccably liberal credentials. 4 3 2 1 makes a great play of tracing Archie’s roots, back to the first Ferguson to set foot on Ellis Island, but it seems there’s no escaping these roots. However the garden’s paths may fork, the destination is always the same.