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review 2017-11-26 21:14
4321 Review
4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

I am a big fan of this book, but I don’t know if I can recommend it to anyone.

Coming in at just under 900 pages, this novel is a brick. The book itself feels heavy, the font is small, the chapters are long, and paragraphs sometimes go on for pages at a time. And Paul Auster doesn’t use quotation marks. If these things sound like a hinderance, go on your way. There is nothing for you here. Auster’s writing style is pleasurable and relatively easy to read (once one gets used to his rhythm, I suppose), but this mofo is dense.

 

This is the coming of age of Archie Ferguson . . . told four times. In alternating chapters, Auster tells the growing up of this book in mid-20th century America as it happens in alternate universes. Across the four versions of this guy, his family dynamics change, where he chooses to go to University change, his girlfriend(s) change, his motives change, his successes and failures change . . . And, somehow, Auster never loses the plot. He spins an intricate web that is equally enthralling and challenging. I related most to Archie 3, though I enjoyed each narrative. Once I was able to get a feel for all versions of this guy, I really enjoyed myself and the wide canvas that is <i>4321</i>.

 

A story filled with melancholy and politics l, revolution and the frustrations of the teenage years, this is right up my alley. The fractured and despondent 1960s is my favorite era to read about in literary fiction, and Auster’s latest largely lingers on that era. Though it isn’t as successful as <i>The Nix</i> in that regard, it is a memorable and intoxicating rendering of what it was to grow up in the time of Vietnam and Nixon and the Sexual Revolution.

 

Though this book isn’t perfect (at times, t made John Irving look like a minimalist) and I did find myself occasionally skimming, those flaws are made up for by the author’s sheer ingenuity and capable, daring plotting. I don’t know if I can recommend this one, but if you’re willing to go into this giving it all you’ve got, I say take the dive.

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review 2017-10-08 14:11
Four stories of the man as a young artist. For lovers of experimental literary fiction and New York.
4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

Thanks to NetGalley and to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve been following with interest the Man-Booker Prize this year and realised I had quite a few of the books on my list to be read and decided to try and read in a timely manner and see how my opinion compared to that of the judges. When the shortlist was announced, only one of the books I had read so far had made it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book I really enjoyed. And then I got the chance to read 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, another one of the novels shortlisted, and I could not resist.

I had read a novel by Paul Auster years back, The Book of Illusions and although I remember I enjoyed it, I had never read another one of his books until now. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I had always kept in mind that at some point I should pick up another one of his books but that day hadn’t arrived.

I hadn’t read anything about this novel before I started reading it, other than it had been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and therefore I was a bit surprised and confused, to begin with.

First, as happens with e-books, I had no idea how long it was. It’s around the 900 pages mark. Second, I didn’t realise it was a fairly experimental novel, or, at least its structure was not standard. The novel starts as if it was going to be a family saga, with the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York, and we follow his story and that of his family for a couple of generations until we get to the birth of a boy, Archibald Ferguson. He doesn’t like his first name that much and for the rest of the novel he is referred to as Ferguson. When things start getting weird is when at some point you become aware that you are reading four different versions of his life. These are narrated in the third person, although always from the point of view of the character, and yes, they are numbered.  So the first chapter (or part), you would have 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and then, the next part would be 2.1… and so on. The story (stories) are told chronologically but chopped up into bits. Some of the reviewers have commented that you need to be a member of MENSA to remember and differentiate the various stories, because yes, there are differences (fate seems to play a big part, as sometimes due to incidents that happen to his family, financial difficulties, relationship issues… the story takes a different turn and deviates from the other versions), but these are not huge, and it is difficult to keep in your mind which one of the versions is which one (at times I would have been reading for a while before I could remember how this version was different to the one I had just been reading). Because the differences are not major (yes, in one version he ends up going to a university and in another to a different one, in one he works at a newspaper and in another starts writing books, in one he goes out with a girl and in another they are only friends…), and the characters are pretty much the same in all versions (although sometimes their behaviour is quite different) it makes the stories very similar. Added to that, all versions of the character are also very similar as if the different circumstances were not earth-shattering and had not affected that much the development of his boy (in the debate of nature, nurture, it’s safe to say Auster supports nature). The devil seems to be in the detail, or perhaps the point is that we might strongly believe that there are moments when our decisions could have sent us down one path or a completely different one (Sliding Doors anyone?), but the truth is that of all the infinite possibilities (and that makes me think of a book I read very recently, Do You Realize?) only one is conducive to life as we know it (the Goldilocks theory of life. Neither too hot nor too cold, just right) and our life was meant to be as it if.

Ferguson loves films and is a bit of a film buff (there are lengthy digressions about Laurel & Hardy, the French New Wave, American Films…), he also loves books and writing, and some versions of the story include his translations of French poets, or his own stories (that sometimes end up being exactly the same as the story we are reading, and others are either full stories or fragments of the books he is writing), and sports, mostly baseball, although also basketball.

Towards the end of the book (well, it’s a long book, so let’s say from the time the characters goes to college), we get much more detailed information about politics and historical events in America. There are lengthy descriptions of reactions to the murders of J.F.K, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the Columbia University demonstrations and student political organisations, and also about New York and Paris (more New York than Paris) in the 1960s and early 70s. Although in one of the versions Ferguson is attending Columbia, he is a reporter and even when he is physically there, he narrates the events as an observer rather than as if he was personally involved. His engagement seems to be intellectual above all, no matter what version of Ferguson we read, although the reasons for his attitude might be different.

I don’t want to end up with a review as long as the book itself, and after checking other reviews of the book, I thought I’d share a couple I particularly liked, so you can have a look.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1909935118?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance

What I thought the book did very well, in all its versions, was to capture the feelings and the thoughts of a teenager and young man (although, as I’m a woman, I might be completely wrong). Although the emphasis is slightly different in each version, that is fairly consistent and rings true. As a writer and film lover, I enjoyed the comments about books and movies, although these could be frustrating to some readers. I also enjoyed the works in progress of the various Fergusons (some more than others) but this could again be annoying to readers who prefer to follow a story and not wander and float in flights of fancy. I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that the latter part of the book is slowed down even more by the endless description of incidents at Columbia that, no matter the version of the story we read, are analytically reported rather than brought to life.

My main problem with the book is that I did not connect that much with the main character. Considering the amount of time readers get to spend with the different versions of Ferguson, we get to know him, but I did not feel for him. Strangely enough, sometimes I felt more connected to some of the other characters in the story (his mother in some versions, some of his friends, a teacher…) than I did to him. I’m not sure if it was because it all felt very artificial, or because none of the versions completely gelled for me. I admired his intellect but did not connect at an emotional level and I did not care for him. I’m aware that readers who know Auster’s oeuvre better have commented on the biographical similarities with his own life, and I’m aware that he has denied it is (or are) his story. There are, for sure, many points of contact. Some readers have compared it to books that have used a somewhat similar format to tell their stories, but as I haven’t read any, I will not comment on that. The ending, metafictional as was to be expected, will probably satisfy more those who enjoy formal literary experiments than those looking for a good story. I do not think many people will find it surprising, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. The writing is good, sometimes deep and challenging, others more perfunctory. And yes, I still intend to read other Auster’s books in the future.

In sum, a fascinating exercise in writing, that will be of interest primarily to followers of Auster’s career, to those who love experimental literary fiction, particularly those interested also in films, literature, the writing process, sports, and New York. Not a book I’d recommend to those who love dynamic stories with exciting plots, or those who prefer to emotionally engage with characters. Ah, and it requires a reasonable memory and a serious investment of time.

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review 2017-08-28 16:01
Review: 4 3 2 1
4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is the Goliath nominee of this year's Man Booker Prize. At nearly 900 pages, it is not only long, it is unnecessarily long. Though Auster has quite a lustrous career behind him, he takes this opportunity to write a novel that sounds like an undergraduate's wet dream project: a “what if” in the life of a young man; four tellings of the same protagonist in the same setting, but with four different outcomes. It's an ambitious project and though its premise sounds a bit juvenile, I think it could've been done well if done differently. Surely, Auster's skill with weaving words has lifted 4 3 2 1 far above being a mere adolescent traipse through history. Sadly, though written with love and precision, it doesn't rise far above this status.

Contrary to what one might expect, there are no catalysts for the detours in young Archie Ferguson's lives. In the opening passages, I was looking for one and was sort of disappointed to miss it. The fact is, the world is simply different for Archie. In one world he lives with his mother and father, in another he's with his mother and step-father. These differences are not presented as being the outcome of choices a young Ferguson made, they just are. And so, one might assume, there are differences in each of the worlds surrounding the four Fergusons, but no the only difference is Ferguson and those he touches. It's as though the world revolves around Ferguson. That's a lot of pressure on a young man. And so, the 1950s and, to a larger extent, the 1960s roll by one time, two times, three times, and four, all without hitch or pause. Though Archie's life has changed drastically, nothing else has: Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, Nixon, King. Ironically, despite the four different paths that vary, Ferguson ends up okay in each one. I mean, you'd expect one of the Archie's to be a raging racist or something, but no, Ferguson always has the foresight to be a proponent of civil rights and that makes him swell. If you can't tell, I guess I'm not that big of a fan of Ferguson. I mean, I spent 900 pages with Archie-Alpha, -Beta, -Gamma, and -Delta—you'd think I'd like the guy a bit more. But Ferguson didn't challenge me or evoke any feeling from me. He was sort of a whiny, privileged kid (even when he wasn't so privileged).

The writing was fine. Before I started to feel bitter about the novel, I felt pulled in to the presentation. I could see myself enjoying a shorter, more focused Auster novel. But at some point, I began to realize this was more of a meandering mess than I cared to wrap myself in. There's so much detail about the lives of the four Fergusons. One begins to wonder if it isn't a bit much, especially when Auster goes on a twelve-page summary of fourteen-year-old Ferguson's short story about talking shoes called "Sole Mates." Was the story important to 4 3 2 1? Yes. Did we need a full summary of the story? Absolutely not. A standard sized paragraph would've been more than was needed. But twelve long pages? Later, Ferguson ponders British actors that starred in Hollywood films. He makes a list in his notebook. And we're blessed with the complete list, all seventy names. These are the sort of things that make this book 900 pages and there was absolutely no need for it.

It may sound like I hated this book and wish to destroy its happiness. I didn't hate it. 4 3 2 1 is a competent epic and it surely has an audience. Personally, I tend to love large books because of the complete stories they often tell. But 4 3 2 1doesn't tell a complete story. Most of the novel covers the lives of the Fergusons in the sixties. And when you divide this by four storylines, you're really only getting four average sized novels rehashing the same decade. And really, what was the point of it all? You expect there to be a catalyst or some revelation in the end that ties the four lines together. But no. JFK is still shot. Students are still murdered on college campuses. But Archie Ferguson gets to decide if he wants to climb a tree or not.

Sadly, the longer this novel went on, the less I liked it. I just didn't buy Ferguson's lack of freewill. It's obvious that his social and political stances are being shaped by the author. Despite leading four very different lives, young Ferguson can choose who he wants to fall in love with, but doesn't get to choose which side of politics to be on.

Recently, Auster admitted that he struggles with ideas these days: “I used to have a backlog of stories, but a few years ago I found the drawers were empty. I guess I’m getting to the point where I tell myself if I can’t write another book it’s not a tragedy.” I think he was grasping for an idea with this one. And though it obviously caught the attention of the Man Booker judges, I was not impressed. That said, my interest in Auster has been piqued and I definitely would love to read some of his earlier, shorter works. Just think, perhaps in another life I thought this was the greatest book ever written.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
I'll be a little surprised if this one makes it to the shortlist. It's not particularly relevant right now. It's not enjoyable to a mainstream audience. It's not all that original or brilliant. It's competent and capable, which is why I think it was fine to be included on the longlist, but it doesn't strike me as an eventual winner. Frankly, it feels a bit too much like the old, east coast white male perspective that has dominated literature for decades. I hope these authors continue to write their stories and that we continue to read and enjoy them, but their time of being celebrated as “the best” has come to a close. It's time to honor fresh ideas, styles, and perspectives.

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review 2016-04-22 00:00
The New York Trilogy: City of Glass/ Ghosts/ the Locked Room
The New York Trilogy: City of Glass/ Ghosts/ the Locked Room - Paul Auster I have to hold firm with myself to leave The New York Trilogy at 3 stars, because overall I liked it, I finished it quick enough, but the more I think about it, the more I believe it was a waste of time.

I read the trilogy together, launching into the Ghosts as soon as City of Glass ended, etc. so that the connection could be as fresh in my mind as they could be.

Of the three City of Glass was the most enjoyable, involving morose detective-fiction writer Daniel Quinn. He answers his phone, responds to a name that is not his own - Paul Auster - and becomes immersed in a case like one out of his books. The narrative deliberately sows confusion with multiple cases of mistaken identity, "the" Paul Auster, and a stake-out that just won't end. I was hoping that the pace and style of this book would continue - but the novellas are only tangentially related.

Ghosts begins with a stake-out, a private investigator paid to ceaselessly watch another man for years. Everything is chromatic with all characters being named after colors (White, Brown, Violet, Black, etc.) all very Tarantino. Blue, like Quinn, begins to lose himself in the case he's investigating. The narrative belabors the repetition of it all, the endless watching, the wondering, the edge-of-your-seat drama of nothing happening at all.

The Locked Room goes back to a more stable narrative, but this time it is a would-be writer who lacks the inspiration to write fiction. He is contacted by the widow of a childhood friend and asked to edit and shepherd Fanshawe's manuscripts into print. On discovering that the manuscripts are brilliant, he accepts. He also avails himself of that widow and the life that Fanshawe might have had, bearing the burden of his late friend's life has more consequences than he anticipated.

All three works have passing references to each other and Auster is making some meta-fictional point about art and life and blah blah blah, but it didn't grab a hold of me. When I wasn't reading the book I wasn't thinking about it, my initial pleasure that I was reading a modern noir gamechanger faded the further I got into it. I need a bit more to go on. Eh. Two.
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review 2015-12-05 10:31
Almost Murakamiesque: Moon Palace
Mond über Manhattan - Paul Auster

Moon Palace was a really good book, so much that it reminded me a lot of Haruki Murakami’s novels. Not that there was any Magical Realism in it, although some of the occurrences seemed to happen so much by sheer coincidence, that they almost had a touch of magic to them.

But Moon Palace had something that has always fascinated me in Murakami’s books, which is that the language was so wonderful that, no matter what sad or weird things happened in the story, they were coated. Coated by the marvelous wording, so that at first they didn’t seem as dreadful or strange as they actually were. As if the language distracted the reader for a moment when something bad occurred, just to make them realize with a bit of a shock few moments later that indeed something had happened, so that their belated reaction to the events was even more intense than it normally would have been.

 

Still I have to deduct one star, because I could not really get into my reading flow with this book. I usually read a Murakami novel in one or two days; Moon Palace took me twenty days to finish. I am not sure if it was the book’s or my fault, so I guess I will have to read more of Auster’s work to find out. I have already bought Sunset Park, and if he continues to amaze me with his language, I think I might have found a new favorite author.

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