Paul Auster might not be a house-hold name, but it surely ought to be. He has written a dozen novels, a collection of poetry, two hands full each of non-fiction, screen plays, illustrated books, and he edited several other works. His latest novel is 4321, which made the 2017 Booker Prize Short List. Every year, I pick three novels from the long list, and try to read them all before the winner is announced. I have come close a few times. Last year I picked three from the long list, but none of mine survived to take home the prize. This year I tried again. The three I picked made the short list. I already had read one – Lincoln on the Bardo by George Saunders – and I owned Paul Auster’s 4321. I felt confident that I would have picked the winner this year, and I did. George Saunders greatly deserved the prize for a wonderfully inventive and absorbing novel. I have already reviewed it for Likely Stories, and I renew my declaration of Lincoln as a first-rate novel. However, my favorite was the Auster tome of 866 pages.
4321 is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It is a story of a man from Russia who escaped with jewels and money sown into the lining of his coat. He ends up on Ellis Island, and meets a fellow traveler who warns him his alphabet soup of a Yiddish/Russian name would get him nowhere. When he finally sits before the examiner, he says in Yiddish, “Ikh hob Fargessen” (I’ve forgotten)! The clerk entered his name as Ichabod Ferguson. Ichabod fathers four sons, who, in turn create offspring of their own. Archie Ferguson, grandson of Ichabod, becomes the focus of the story.
Now, before you quickly run to the nearest book store or fire up Amazon “One-click-Ordering,” a few words of advice. First, make lots of family trees to keep the main characters straight. Second, have a good dictionary at hand, and third, readers might want to familiarize themselves with the latest theories of the Multiverse. Also, readers play close attention to Chapter 2.2. This is a complex novel to say the least. 4321 is what I call a “puzzle novel”.
Despite all this, I was amazed at how I could gobble up dozens of pages at a sitting. While it did take nearly a month – stacks of essays and other tasks – robbed me of many hours of reading. I needed to become accustomed to his style of long sentences – some running to a page or more – I was mesmerized from the first line. I spent lots of time figuring out the odd chapter numbers, not to forget the odd title, but it was worth every single minute. I have already worked out a plan for a second read this summer.
I have many, many passages noted for this review, so choosing among them will be tough. Especially since Archie, a year or two ahead of me, had many shared experiences, fears, joys, and sorrows. Here is one brief passage in chapter 1.1, “The best things in the world were vanilla ice cream and jumping up and down on his parents’ bed. The worst things in the world were stomach aches and fevers” (31). Archie also invented an imaginary brother.
Archie’s Aunt Mildred was a college professor, and she carefully guided him along a reading life path. She sent him dozens of recommendations and books for him to read. The list was magnificent, and although he rarely saw his Aunt Mildred, they did keep in touch and always talked about what Archie was reading. In one of his letters home, Auster writes, “‘I’ve read three books since I’ve been here,’ he wrote in the last letter, which was dated August 9th, ‘and I thought they were all terrific. Two of them were sent to me by my Aunt Mildred, and a little one by Franz Kafka called The Metamorphosis and a bigger one by J.D. Salinger called The Catcher in the Rye. The other was fiven to me by my cousin Francie’s husband Gary—Candide by Voltaire. The Kafka book is by far the weirdest and most difficult to read, but I loved it. A man wakes up one morning and discovers that he’s been turned into an enormous insect! It sounds like science fiction or a horror story, but it isn’t. It’s about the man’s soul. The Catcher in the Rye is about a high school boy wandering around New York. Nothing much happens in it, but the way Holden talks (he’s the hero) is very realistic and true, and you can’t help liking him and wishing he could be your friend. Candide is an old book from the 18th century, but it is wild and funny, and I laughed out loud on almost every page” (179).
When I reached about a hundred pages to the end, I frequently cried, and I slowed down my reading to only a couple of pages – at the most! – because I did not want it to end. But when I did finish, I knew it would never end. Paul Auster, 4321, and Archie Fergusun will be with me for a long time -- as long as I can manage reading. 10 Stars.