Paul Auster’s 4321

 

4

In an essay from the mid-1970’s on the poet Charles Reznikoff, Paul Auster wrote of the poet’s ability to

choose the exact detail that will say everything and thereby allow as much as possible to remain unsaid. This kind of restraint paradoxically requires an openness of spirit that is available to very few….
–from The Art of Hunger

Paul Auster wrote that before he had written the novels that would make him famous. And while I have not read the poetry he had written, I’m willing to grant—because of those novels—that he was writing here from experience. He knew, from the inside, what he was talking about. The New York Trilogy proved it.

Another attribute available to few: the ability to write a successful long novel, long in my estimation being more than 400 pages. Auster has written brilliant short novels, surely some of the best of our time. Could he now, pushing 70, write a successful long one? And why would he want to? Isn’t that like moving backwards? Isn’t leaving out a greater challenge than putting in? Those are the questions that drew me to 4321, Auster’s new novel of nearly 900 pages. Why in God’s name would he want to do it?

Some of the most pleasurable hours of my reading life have been spent with Paul Auster novels (I’ve read all but one of them). One or two of them are rather weak in my opinion. I disliked Brooklyn Follies so much that I passed over Sunset Park when it came out. Others are uneven. The narrative of The Book of Illusions didn’t quite work for me, but the first section of the book, in which a series of silent films (entirely fictional) are described is miraculous. His best (City of Glass and The Music of Chance, to name two) are brilliant, genius, unlike anything else. They’re also short.

I am biased against long novels. First of all because I think it is one of the most difficult things in all of the arts to pull off. There aren’t very many Louis-Ferdinand Célines in the world—those capable of sustaining 500 pages through the sheer force of personality forged into an inimitable prose style. Not even Paul Auster has that kind of power. One approach is a vast, intricate plot. But it’s risky. Tolkien had the sense to break The Lord of the Rings into three books and even those are subdivided by “Books”. And to pull that off he had to create a whole world compelling enough to keep you reading. Melville took another approach with Moby Dick. Barely any narrative at all. Instead he illustrated every aspect of 19th century whaling life in a language drawn from Shakespeare and the King James Bible, filtered through a poet’s ear and seen through the philosophical lens of extreme contrasts. It worked because of that combination: Melville’s firsthand knowledge, his ungodly talent and his unique vision. Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country is a more recent example of a successful long novel. It came about because Matthiessen had the genius to realize it was too long, originally broken into three separate novels simply because of that length. The artist in Matthiessen could not rest with that solution. So he went to work, chopped out words, remolded and created one novel out of the three, as originally intended. Still, the result consists of three formally distinct sections.

I’m willing to grant that Joyce’s long novels are good. I’ve never been able to get through them. I’m willing to grant that Tolstoy’s are good. I’ve never felt up to the task of reading them. Reading a long novel is a major investment of time. And considering the low chances of success I’m reluctant to invest. The fact is I admire brevity. It’s far easier to run off at the mouth than choose the few precise words needed. Believe me, I know, and can prove the point (probably am) at any moment. Writing, as Blanchot taught us, is as much about the words left out as it is the ones chosen. Any writer who does not know that is not a writer, in my opinion, just someone playing around with language. And because of my hatred of unnecessary wordiness I gravitate toward poetry, for the essence of poetry is the challenge of selecting the few words—and only those words—that will do the job. The hardest poems to write are often the shortest.

So, has he done it? Has Paul Auster, master of short novels, written a successful long one? Well, yes, but just barely. The way he did it is more interesting to me than the novel itself, but that indeed is the problem.

 

 

3

Auster has not escaped some of the usual problems of a long novel. We have sentences like:

Ferguson, who was on his fourth job for Mr. Mangini since the start of the summer, heard the news on the radio as he stood on a ladder painting the kitchen ceiling of a three-bedroom apartment on Central Park West between Eighty-third and Eighty-fourth Streets. (p 853)

The “news” he heard was Ho Chi Minh’s death, just one more item in the mountain of details of 4321 that serves no other purpose than to inform the reader of what’s going on in the wider world outside of Ferguson’s life. Fourth job or tenth job—unimportant. Mr. Mangini—of no consequence whatsoever. On a ladder painting a ceiling or on his knees cleaning a baseboard—doesn’t matter. Bedroom or kitchen, who cares. But the worst offender is the address. There’s no reason we need to know the address and therefore no reason for those ten words to exist. Elsewhere hair color is described in seven words when one would suffice, although I’d argue that in most cases that word is unnecessary. We have lots of lists, characters like Mr. Mangini that serve little or no purpose are given entire sentences and of course painting the vast 1960’s backdrop of Ferguson’s life takes up scores of pages. Here’s a really bad one:

After Nancy Sperone found her new man in the early days of the student strike, Ferguson squandered the next six months pursuing two different women who were not worth the effort of pursuing and shall remain nameless because they are not worth the effort of naming. (p 800)

There are problems with the narratives. Each of the four Fergusons (or is it only three?—can’t remember, and does it matter?) is into music. Strangely, Auster eschews the opportunity to use this device to help paint his backdrop of the sixties for, as everyone knows, the popular music of the sixties was wound up intricately with the explosive events of that era. But the Fergusons aren’t interested in popular music. They all like classical, with a little jazz mixed in. But the problem is we aren’t given any reason why music means so much to the Fergusons and no indication whatsoever of any effects listening to music has on their lives. The lists of composers and names of compositions add nothing to the narratives, they are just more words thrown into the wordplow. Talk about name-dropping.

Multiply these and comparable examples and before you know it you’re into thousands of unnecessary words that add up to scores of pages. Paul Auster’s prose style is so elegantly flowing that you don’t mind so much being carried along, even if it sometimes feels like an avalanche (and yes, good writers can even make lists interesting to read), but it takes more than style to succeed, even barely.

It seems clear that Auster wanted to challenge himself. He deliberately indulged in unnecessary wordage. Moreover, he multiplied the challenges. It’s as if he asked, How can I make this even more difficult? and then went ahead and did those things. The whole book, all 866 pages of it, is told, not shown. And then, at the considerable risk of being annoying, he lets you know that this was a conscious decision:

Kleist…. The speed of his sentences, the propulsion. He tells and tells but doesn’t show much…. (p 495)

Thousands of unnecessary words, the whole told and none shown and he ups the ante even further by removing the element of surprise, he tells you what’s going to happen before it happens—that is, he tells you and then tells you again. Then, 25 pages before the end, he writes:

In the months that followed, no more central characters in The Ferguson Story dropped dead on tennis courts or anywhere else, and no more loves were found or lost or even contemplated. A slow, dreary summer with his novel…. locked up in his studio apartment for most of the day with no one to see at night….

He goes on to describe the difficulties of writing that novel:

He was writing a book about death, and on some days he felt the book was trying to kill him. Every sentence was a struggle, every word in every sentence could have been a different word….

So you read on to the end of this novel that says fuck you to every rule of writing a novel as well as common sense to find out what the hell he’s going to do with over twenty more pages after he’s all but told you nothing more is going to happen. And of course, anyone who has read all of Auster’s novels should have seen it coming (and so not even this is a surprise): the last Ferguson standing turns out to be the author of 4321, all 866 pages of it.

 

 

2

4321 has received a lot of attention. It’s interesting to scan the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Most interesting is that the book has received an overall score of four stars despite mixed reviews. I find myself agreeing with most of them, from the negative to the positive.

Some reviewers asked why he didn’t just write a memoir, given that all four Fergusons were based on his own life and he was so keen on setting them against a vast backdrop of the 1960’s. Others found the whole effort to be pointless. There is something very Titanic (the James Cameron version) about it. Sure, Titanic was a wildly popular film, but you can ask the same questions about it. Why use the sinking of the Titanic as a backdrop for a love story that, face it, not everyone finds terribly interesting? What’s the point? Oh, apart from making a big splash?

In fact, Paul Auster has written a memoir from this period. It’s called Hand To Mouth. It’s worth comparing the two, especially since 4321 will rank low on my list of favorite Auster books and Hand To Mouth (the first edition) is at the very top. Same elegant prose. But the memoir portion of Hand To Mouth is a mere 125 pages. I found Ferguson 4’s literary ideas more interesting than the novel itself. I found myself wanting to read them, wondering if Auster had written them and if he hadn’t hoping he would. It seemed exceedingly odd to me that Auster would throw these ideas away as (apparently as) relatively incidental matter for character development. By contrast, in the first edition of Hand To Mouth some of the works mentioned in the memoir are included as appendixes: three short plays and an entire novel. I admire the hell out of Auster for smuggling them into a publishing contract for a memoir. The card game he invented is also included. The whole thrust of the memoir was to tell the tale of his inability to sell those very items. And the sum is greater than its parts which nevertheless remain independent. It’s a puzzle glorious in its weirdness, and no other book like it in the world. I think it’s Auster’s best. It’s the real thing: a memoir told in a modest amount of words along with the author’s own literary works. 4321 is a fictionalization of that and compared to which is laborious.

 

 

1

A strange sentence occurs on page 853. It’s not even the whole sentence, it’s the phrase, “but as the reader will have observed by now”. It signals a sudden turn in perception since until now the reader has not been addressed. It is also a signal to those who are observant that Auster has something planned for the final pages of the book. To a reader like me it feels like swimming along when something big darts by. What was that? These are the kinds of moments I remember. How, with all its flaws, does 4321 just barely work? For me it’s moments like that. And it must be said that Auster is generous with them.

There may not be a “point” to 4321 but there is certainly a theme, and numerous ideas pertaining to it are sprinkled throughout, such as chance (one of Auster’s favorite themes) and the multi-faceted thing a selfhood is. These ideas appear early and often throughout the novel. So numerous are they I don’t know where to begin to share them, so will quote just three:

One of the odd things about being himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well. (p 241)

Time moved in two directions because every step into the future carried a memory of the past, and even though Ferguson had not yet turned fifteen, he had accumulated enough memories to know that the world around him was continually being shaped by the world within him, just as everyone else’s experience of the world was shaped by his own memories, and while all people were bound together by the common space they shared, their journeys through time were all different, which meant that each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else. (p 347)

…. and what did it mean to be himself anyway, he wondered, he had…. so many different selves that in the end he was as large as everyone or as small as no one, and if that was true for him, then it had to be true for everyone else as well, meaning that everyone was everyone and no one at the same time…. (p 708)

These ideas run like a thin web throughout the novel, holding it together, with the help of what I refer to as glue phrases:

The world wasn’t real anymore. Everything in it was a fraudulent copy of what it should have been, and everything that happened in it shouldn’t have been happening. For a long time afterward, Ferguson lived under the spell of this illusion, sleepwalking through his days and struggling to fall asleep at night, sick of a world he had stopped believing in, doubting everything that presented itself to his eyes. (p 79)

Everything solid for a time, and then the sun comes up one morning and the world begins to melt. (p 104)

Two roads diverged in an unreal city, and the future was dead. (p 144)

He had put his money on number zero and had lost, and now it was time to get out. (p 806)

I have even found words to live by:

What to do or not to do when the world was on fire and you didn’t have the equipment to put out the flames, when the fire was in you as much as it was around you, and no matter what you did or didn’t do, your actions would change nothing? Stick to the plan by writing the book. (p 824)

The novel works, but not as well, not nearly as well, as some of his great short novels which, by the way, explore similar themes. I kept wondering why events in the world outside of Ferguson’s small circle remained the same in each version of Ferguson’s life. It went beyond suspending disbelief. It seemed to me that artworks especially would be different from one timeline to another. But we see the same artworks reappear in all four timelines. The theme of the book is not that everything could be different, but that—turning right rather than left, given this accident or that one—one’s relationship to everything could be different. That’s clear. Not so clear is the need for 866 pages to say it. And that world is constant purely for one semi-autobiographical Ferguson who turns out to be the author of 4321. No omniscient narrator here. So when Ferguson 3 writes a memoir using the exact words found earlier it is really Ferguson 4 (the last Ferguson standing, the Author) writing the account of a fictional version of himself writing a memoir using his own (Ferguson 4’s) words. I’m all for the art of rereading, and Auster has created numerous strategies here for rereading, but I don’t need to spin in these circles ever again.

Unfortunately, we are left with an apparent openness of spirit that turns out to be an ornately contrived form of solipsism, and paradoxically, the more details that pile up to paint the backdrop of Ferguson’s world the more hermetic the novel gets. Auster has fallen into this trap before, with Brooklyn Follies and The Inner Life of Martin Frost, but never this far. I feel like I’ve been in Paul Auster’s head, and I’m glad to be out of it.

 

zero

I have been fascinated by the song Alone Again Or for years, and I’ve been listening to it and the other songs on Love’s album Forever Changes during the writing of this review. First of all it’s the title. “Alone Again” would be forgettable. But the addition of the word “or” is so unusual. Or what? The lyrics are peculiar as well. Then there’s the way The Damned slightly changed the second verse. The Damned, inspired by a group called Love. Now I understand why I have been so fascinated, why the song is such a work of genius. In both musical form and lyrical content the song expresses the two extremes of aloneness and public life. I could be. You could be. And it’s only three minutes long.

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4 Responses to Paul Auster’s 4321

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    Not long ago I read (much lighter fare than you’re describing here) Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. While I enjoyed it, I found my mental editor excising words several times along the way, and that definitely interfered with my enjoyment of the book.

    I actually keep an eye out for long novels. If they “work,” which, as you note is all too rare, it means I’ve found an experience valuable enough that I’m not eager for it to end. One of my favorites at the time I read it was Vollman’s Europe Central (it’s the book that led me in to Shostakovich for the first time). Oddly enough, when I went back to it after having read up on Shostakovich, I quickly put it down in frustration: real life ended up being far more interesting than Vollman’s account, rich though the latter was.

    I have read War and Peace twice or three times and listened to a wonderful version of it on books on tape. It’s the kind of book I might even go back to again, much like visiting an old friend. But it’s a certain kind of book, old-fashioned story-telling, really, and it’s simply that it takes that long to tell the particular tale he’s chosen. Other books, like Ulysses or Celine, are an entirely different experience. And then there’s Proust . . . or Don Quixote.

    Well, I’m babbling on and will now stop, but I thank you for the trail down which you sent me with this perceptive post.

    • I’ve always thought I’d read Tolstoy someday, but someday never comes. I’ve had a “Don Quixote” sitting on my shelf for a long time too….

      • Susan Scheid says:

        I know what you mean. I’ve all too many books on my shelves like that, and I keep being tempted by more. I was, in fact, just thinking again about this post and the issue of justifiable/non-justifiable length. I (finally) finished reading the novel Kornel Esti (which is quite clever but didn’t say much to me somehow). I spotted in the local book store two other authors who seemed intriguing, but in each case their major tomes are pretty long, so I’m hesitating. One was Perec, and the review of his book, “Life: A User’s Manual” was reviewed in the NY Times by . . . Paul Auster.

  2. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve read this novel and it’s not sitting well with me. In retrospect I like it less. But I find myself asking strange questions like: when does an aesthetic choice become an ethical one? So, the novel is still working in my mind.

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