“Until that moment, it had never occurred to him that he might not be an American, or, more precisely, that his way of being an American was any less authentic than the way Dougie and the other boys were American, but that was what his friend seemed to be asserting: that there was a difference between them, an elusive, indefinable quality that had to do with black-hatted English ancestors and the length of time spent on this side of the ocean and the money to live in four-story townhouses on the Upper East Side that made some families more American than others, and in the end the difference was so great that the less American families could barely be considered American at all.”
I am fervently, emphatically anti-spoiler; I refuse to share any details about a book that would reduce its impact and dampen the experience of the next reader. I can’t remember a time when this position put me at a greater challenge to summarize a novel than now.
“4321” begins when Isaac Reznikoff flees his Native Minsk in 1900 and, in a classic Ellis Island transformation, is renamed by an immigration official who misunderstands Reznikoff’s Yiddish response to questioning: ‘Ikh hob fargessen’ (I’ve forgotten) becomes the name Ichabod Ferguson. Thus is born the Ferguson tribe and, eventually, the protagonist of this striking epic and Ichabod’s grandson, Archie Ferguson. From this point forward, the novel traces the path of Archie Ferguson down four alternate realities, each reality interwoven with the others like a complicated braid. Thus, the reader is treated to chapter 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, then 2.1, 2.2, and so on. Because the stories diverge so early in the book, a detailed plot summary risks either tangling or spoiling the story.
Suffice it to say that this is/these are a coming of age story(ies) about a Jewish boy in 1960s suburban New Jersey and New York City with ambitions to be a writer. In all four strains, Archie is a thoughtful, lovable character open to the world and its many possibilities. Some of the most moving passages of the book are when Auster describes the formative, visceral nature of reading and writing for Archie.
“[F]or even if Thoreau wasn’t a writer of novels or short stories, he was a writer of sublime clarity and precision, a creator of such beautifully constructed sentences that Ferguson felt their beauty as one feels a bow to the chin or a fever in the brain. Perfect. Every word seemed to fall perfectly in place, and every sentence seemed to be a small work unto itself, an independent unit of breath and thought, and the thrill of reading such prose was never knowing how far Thoreau would leap from one sentence to the next – sometimes it was only a matter of inches, sometimes of several feet or yards, sometimes of whole country miles – and the destabilizing effect of those irregular distances taught Ferguson how to think about his own efforts in a new way, for what Thoreau did was to combine two opposing and mutually exclusive impulses in every paragraph he wrote, what Ferguson began to call the impulse to control and the impulse to take risks. That was the secret, he felt. All control would lead to an airless, suffocating result. All risk would lead to chaos and incomprehensibility. But put the two together, and then maybe you’d be onto something, then maybe the words singing in your head would start to sing on the page and bombs would go off and buildings would collapse and the world would begin to look like a different world.”
The foundation of the story, the bending of time in such an unusual way, was a fascinating hook for me. I always appreciate well-thought-through experimentation with form and chronology, and this experimentation was the noteworthy asset of the book. However, the sheer length of the book – a hefty 865 pages divided into 7 (or 28) chapters – makes this format a bit labyrinthian for the reader. I found I needed to keep an index card divided into four parts so that I could track the main points of each of the four parallel stories, otherwise the 100 page gap between one phase of a particular life and the next, along with some characters and places appearing across multiple lives, had me scratching my head and doing a lot of flipping pages. I do not shy away from a lengthy book, but a book has to command that kind of devotion and commitment. Unfortunately, “4321” just felt too long. Auster was so swept up in his concept that he may have missed numerous opportunities to pare back and simplify. While his language is often concise and never over-wrought, this massive tome is over-written in that too much was written.
The book’s greatest sin, however, and the one which still makes me fume a week after having finished the book, is its ending. After such a plodding, intricate layout and 850 pages of toilsome reading, the book’s last 15 pages are a terrible, trite cop-out. Having brought you along through decades of four parallel stories, Auster bafflingly decides to end the novel by essentially explaining its concept and writing it into the story. With an “Archie will write a story in four parts; thus endeth the book” wave of his writerly wand, Auster abruptly stops writing and flees the scene. I felt misused, duped, and wondered momentarily if the purpose of the book’s sheer mass wasn’t to prevent disgruntled readers from being able to hurl it across the room.
All in all, “4321” gets an A+ for concept, an A- for composition, a B- for editing, and an F for conclusion. Do I recommend others read this book? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps Auster followed too literally the quoted advice of Edgar Allan Poe: Be bold – read much – write much – publish little – keep aloof from the little wits – and fear nothing. But perhaps not.