‘a story about a young man writing a story about a young man writing a story about a young man writing a story about a young man…’
Does a book have to permeate every part of your being to be life changing? I’m not sure it does, especially after reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. I think this one has been life-changing for me for reasons I’ll outline and in ways that possibly only this novel could have managed.
I’ve been in a reading slump for a good while, managing only to complete books over long periods of time and without being totally drawn in. Worse, I’ve been in a writing slump and this has been the cause of plenty of anguish. And worse still, I’ve been in a general slump that was beginning to seem never-ending. And here is Mr Auster, reaching out from somewhere and making things better like some mind-bending magician or higher being.
How did he do it? I’m not entirely sure. There’s the fact that the book contains so many of his familiar paths: modern US history; satisfying lists; newspaper reports; basketball; baseball; New York; book stores; the music of chance; lines that make you stop to re-read them more than once; rebellion; philosophy; wordplay and connection; Paris; rebellion; a delight in the history of prose and poetry; and writing. Each of these suggests echoes of previous work. The comfort of that is something difficult to measure. For me, taking me back to my twenties and the days when I first fell in love with his writing was a real treat.
My reading slump must surely now be over. 900 pages within a month is something I wouldn’t have been able to face until this one. I set myself the goal and managed it. It was a challenge at times, but I made it to the end and I’m delighted I did. Surely that means I now have the discipline and the desire to take on more (I have SA Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland in the wings, so I’m pretty sure that the journey of joy will continue).
My writing slump was already coming to an end. The idea was in place and I was ready to start. What 4,3,2,1 has reminded me of is that the ability to write and create stories is an amazing thing to have. I’m back at the keyboard and have a chapter in the bag. I’ll never match Mr Auster for quality, nor will I match countless others, but I can knock out a decent novel and want this next piece to be the best I’ve managed yet.
And if one of the essences of this book is distilled, everything has the potential to be life-changing, each decision and action opening new doors and directions that lead to other doors and directions and so on.
4,3,2,1 is about Ferguson. Or 4 different versions of Ferguson. From the same beginning, each of the four lives out a life that is a consequence of different things happening. The stories work in sequence. People who die in one chapter are still living in another. Things that have been jettisoned by one Ferguson are embrace by another. Good things happen to all of them and so do terrible things. His sexuality may not be the same. Those around him change, depending on their own altered circumstances. Throughout it all, we see each Ferguson growing up and taking a voyage of self-discovery. The backdrop of the civil rights movement and anti-war movements are prominent and each individual’s interaction with each is fundamental to who they become.
The author managed to keep me on track most of the time. When fumbling to recall what had happened to whom, a key aspect of their life would remind me where I was. In truth, I’m not sure how important it was that the separation was maintained, for as much as each Ferguson was different, in other ways they were interchangeable (there’s only so much bending that one set of genes can tolerate).
I’m sure this is a profound novel. One that will have deep thinkers wallowing in material for an age. Being of little brain, I’m just happy I read it and that the food for thought I was able digest was nourishing and tasty.
For the most part, I loved the book. On occasion, I had to slog through pages when my attention wavered. I had to overcome some early doubts about my engagement when it occurred to me that it didn’t matter what was happening to Ferguson at any point because it would soon by thrown up in the air to come out differently at the next stop. Those moments aside, I was rooting for each of them all the way to their ends.
A little quote to finish, one I appreciated and that all writers out there are likely to have experienced at one time or another:
‘There were reviews. For the first time in his life, he was bussed and slapped in public, thirteen times over the next four months by his reckoning, long, medium and short reviews in newspapers, magazines, and literary quarterlies, five satisfying French kisses, a friendly pat on the back, three punches to the face, one knee to the balls, one execution by firing squad and two shrugs. Ferguson was both a genius and an idiot, both a wonder boy and a supercilious oaf, both the best thing that had happened this year and the worst thing that had happened this year, both brimming with talent and utterly devoid of it…try as he did to ignore both the good and the bad that were said about him, Ferguson had to admit that the stings went on stinging long after the kisses had worn off…Fuck it, he said to himself, as he filed away the reviews in the bottom drawer of his desk. If and when he ever published another book, he would stop up his ears with candle wax, cover his eyes with a blindfold, strap his body to the mast of a ship, and then ride out the storm until the Sirens could no longer touch him.’
Oh how those shrugs must have hurt.