There’s a long-standing philosophical debate about whether life is driven by destiny, including the variant of divine will, or if it is pushed about by luck or misfortune—whether our time on earth is dictated by nature, meaning our DNA, or whether it is shaped by nurture, our experiences.
Of course there are those who take an appropriately ecumenical view, understanding we are simply the sum of nurture and nature—the result of exposing the combination of our parents’ chromosomes to life’s events. Character is man’s destiny, according to Greek philosopher Heraclitus. And what is character if not the result of nature plus nurture?
Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, and his longest one ever, at 866 pages, seems to adopt the first point of view: destiny is what drives everyone’s life. No matter how meandering your biography, you’ll end up where you were destined to end up. In 4 3 2 1 Auster tells us that life is just an intersection of points following a direction fundamentally undeterred by a crossing of chance events.
The Dickensian scope
You will not recognise the author of The New York Trilogy in this tome. None of those meta-fiction, post-modern intricacies and surprises, until maybe a somewhat predictable end, but you will discover the rather Dickensian scope of a social realist novel. No more echoes of Kafka, Camus or Beckett, but an appropriate mention of David Copperfield .
It’s a bildungsroman documenting, at times in a tediously punctilious style, the lives of four boys who are all called Archibald Ferguson. They have the same businessman father, same photographer mother, and same cousin/girlfriend Amy, but their lives diverge. One becomes a basketball reporter, another a movie critic, one gets killed in a road accident, another gets maimed in one. And yet in the finale’s twist you’ll understand that, basically, Archie was always destined to be a writer, no matter what.
“The torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another travelling toward an altogether different place.” These are the thoughts of a 70-year-old legend of American literature who contemplates different paths his life could’ve taken. It’s inevitable to think of the movie Sliding Doors with a young Gwyneth Paltrow, or Robert Frost’s famous poem ‘The Road not Taken’. You know: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”
This is the life story of four Archie Fergusons who happen to be born in 1947, the same year as Auster. So we read at length, intertwined with their lives, about the Cold War, John F. Kennedy’s murder, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war and all those historical facts that seem to have become mandatory for any biographical narrative.
It’s as if Auster decided to adopt the confessional novel style of Karl Ove Knausgård and Elena Ferrante, while retaining the social realism of Michael Chabon or Zadie Smith. But for 866 pages?
The narrative does reach high points of great writing, leading the readers to identify fondly with the main character, infected by sudden melancholia as we leave one Ferguson who just kissed his cousin in a New York Upper West Side apartment and suddenly we switch to a wealthier, yet unsatisfied and more pedestrian New Jersey version of Ferguson. It reminds us of life’s frailties and our own episodes of a first kiss or the first broken heart. But in order to gather these pearls, the reader has to wade through too many unimportant details.
It’s an impeccable formal exercise, with shining moments and profound sentences, but the story in its entirety sinks in the frigid molasses of excessive prose, a post-modern hall of mirrors where readers get lost. And although yes, it is about the journey, not the destination, if you don’t have fun, or are not sufficiently intrigued, what’s the point of making it? The instances of splendid reading are alternated with a style that feels too sprawling and repetitive, and at times exasperating.
Is this a surprisingly light doorstopper or a long-winded coming of age? Is it Paul Auster’s most intricate novel yet or 1.23 kg you can barely pick up? Is it a novel or a math problem? Is it overly ambitious or four times the fun? As big as the author’s ego or as large as life’s experiences?
In an interview, Auster has admitted that writing this book “was an improvisation, it felt like a kind of dance.” As any dancer knows, it is useful to have a choreographer check your moves from the public’s perspective, not the stage.
Success can be the enemy of great writers when it makes them dodge their own severe editing and inhibits a publisher from shaving off 400 pages, ignoring Blaise Pascal’s sacred quote: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Carlo Pizzati is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and a professor of communication theory based in Tamil Nadu.