Man Booker Shortlist 2017
In 4321 Auster takes us along in four variations on the life of Archibald Ferguson, descendant of a Jewish-Russian immigrant who grows up in New York and her suburbs in the fifties and sixties of the 20th century. In this way showing us how a fluke can change somebody’s life. Whilst American history remains unchanged in the four versions of Archie’s life, that life changes differently each time because of differences in fate.
The changes in Archie’s life are major changes for him, but not necessarily for his readers. They are confronted with four story lines that deviate only slightly. It is not the mind-blowing events that determine a life-changing moment it is the ordinary stuff: a divorce, moving, death. As a result the 850 pages kind of gurgle along.
Archie is confronted with ordinary developments common to a majority of growing children and adolescents. One should not expect spectacular plots, 4321 is about daily life, about growing up in America – four times. The world Archie lives in does change spectacularly. Political assassinations, growing racial awareness and violence, violently quenches student protests, Auster describes them in detail. Again showing that a chance meeting, a chance occurrence can lead to the personal choice to participate (or not) in the (political) movements of America in the sixties,
The concept of 4321 is interesting, I am not sure whether the end result is exactly to my liking. I am just not into novels with detailed descriptions of history, I know there is a large group of readers who do appreciate this. Archie living four ordinary lives makes for ordinary stuff coming back again and again, especially when he is just a young kid. The moment he grows older and consciously starts to face major decisions on his future life, the novel becomes more and more interesting. It is also when Auster’s talent as a writer kicks in. His writing is excellent throughout the novel, in those chapters Archie is facing life-determining decisions construction of sentences, choice of words and metaphors all work together. Auster the gifted writer uses language to give a voice to growing up, its many insecurities and doubts.
I have my doubts about this Auster. 850 pages that do not enthral from start to finish make for a labour intensive read. Some pruning might have resulted in a novel that to me felt less like work.