4321 by Paul Auster: One boy, four lives

It’s hard to get past how long Paul Auster’s 4321 is. The book is longer than some editions of Anna Karenina. When I mean long, I don’t mean just the number of pages. The hefty length is given considering it chronicles the life of Archie Ferguson from his first breath to his last breath four different times. I can feel that I have lost you, so let me elaborate:

4321 is about Archibald Isaac Ferguson, affectionately referred to as Archie, born on March 3, 1947. The book starts with his great-grandfather Ichabod Ferguson who arrives to America from Minsk and starts his family. He has three sons, one of whom is named Stanley Ferguson. Stanley soon comes of age, marries Rose Adler, and on March 3, 1947, the hero of this modern epic is born. His name is Archibald “Archie” Isaac Ferguson. This is the origin story; after the origin story each chapter is divided into four sections i.e chapter number.1, chapter number.2, chapter number.3, and chapter number.4. Each section takes Archie on a different pathway in life. It’s kind of like watching someone else play a raunchy, indie version of Choose your own Adventures, and each section is an outcome of the options you could have chosen. The story essentially shows the protagonist growing up and grappling with family life, political tension, and sexuality (just to name a few) in four different ways.

The best thing about this book is its writing by far. It has a sort of  J.D Salinger-flare to it. The writing captures the comedic struggle it is to grow up, and Auster shows the four different ways it can be funny. However, as anyone can tell you, what goes up must come down, and that is what I believe Auster does best with his writing in this particular book. When it’s good, it’s really good. The way Auster wrote about  Rose and Stanley falling in love, Amy and Archie falling in love,Archie and the art of writing falling in love, and other good moments made me believe in the pureness that is the human soul, and that is just what Auster wants: for me to believe. It makes the writing more gripping when the other shoe drops and people lie, betray, and die. That’s the ingenuity when telling four different stories of the same person. You love the same character immensely in one story and want to spit on the same character’s face in the other story.

While the writing was great, it couldn’t save this book. From other reviews I’ve read about this book, people prefer his other books to this one. This is my first experience with Paul Auster, but I understand why this book would probably be a let down.

There were times when I completely zoned out while reading. As I would be reading, I would find my mind wondering about food (although I can’t blame that wholly on the book) or school or something else. I understand that as a writer he want to keep every word in his book because he knows the importance behind them, but there was so much he could’ve cut. There was a good two pages on a baseball game that I skipped entirely and didn’t bother to read. I did the same three other times within the book. I couldn’t help it. The excerpts weren’t doing anything to add or progress the ongoing scene, and I didn’t really miss anything.

To read this book is work. It cannot be called a casual read because it can get exhaustive. I had to get a drink of water after reading thirty pages. It’s not a book I would recommend, but I wouldn’t tell anyone to avoid it either. If you are really into books that challenge you, this is the book for you. As I read this book, I started bringing back things that I remembered from AP English like literary criticisms and relations to other books of literary merit. If you are a reader that likes to go beyond the lines of the story and analyze books into depth, this is the story for you. There is so much I want to talk about, but I would risk giving spoilers, so I leave with the hopes that someone else reads this book and will talk to me about it.

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