By Paul Auster, Henry Holt and Co., January 31, 2017, 1250618800

I enjoy reading Paul Auster. I read New York Trilogy decades ago on the recommendation of a friend, and since then I’ve read a number of his books. They are always interesting.

4 3 2 1 is almost 900 pages. Four novels, four paths through time, about the same people, more or less, with the hero, Archibald “Archie” Ferguson, who calls himself Ferguson, narrating the whole book, in a form that was not disturbing at first, but that I noticed, naturally, and thought it worked well for a writer narrating a book about an evolving writer, pushing the “Auster” genre, which is in a category of its own, imiho.

The book is autobiographical. It takes place around the time when Auster grew up in Jersey and went to Columbia. There are many paths that Auster could have taken, and Ferguson discusses that, which makes the book introspective.

I included some snippets below. One is just a prototypical passage, for me. How he’s talking about Earthly things and ends up on Mars. The next is about subtle anti-semitism, which I could relate to. When I moved to Palm Desert and went to Indio High School, one person actually asked: What do you eat, bagels? Is that anti-semitism, yes, because the person treated me as an alien who couldn’t just eat normally, like everyone else. Was I offended? No. Just found the whole thing strange.

The thesis (theme?) of the book is described in the next snippet. Auster-Ferguson talks about choices and paths through life like this. They want us to see how small choices can have large consequences and paths can be, perhaps, capricious.

The last quote reminds me of the need to keep your head down and just good work. You can’t change the world. In none of the novels does Ferguson try to change the world. Instead he’s the chronicler, the novelist, the artist, not the agent of change. He questions this constantly, as I do, but in the end, none of the people around him (even Mark Rudd?) has much effect. I appreciate the perspective.

The end of the book I thought was weak and unfortunately obvious. It ties things together nicely, but somehow I feel like he could have done better. But that is the path he chose.

[k1603] There was no question that Uncle Don could be more loquacious than his father, funnier than his father, more interesting than his father, but only when he wanted to be, and now that Ferguson had come to know him as well as he did, he saw how often he seemed to look straight through Aunt Mildred when she talked to him, as if he were searching for something behind her back, not able to hear her because he was thinking about something else, which was not unlike how his father often looked at his mother now, more and more often now, the glazed-over look of a man unable to see anything but the thoughts inside his own head, a man who was there but not there, gone.

That was the real difference, Ferguson concluded. Not too little money or too much money, not what a person did or failed to do, not buying a larger house or a more expensive car, but ambition. That explained why Brownstein and Solomon managed to float through their lives in relative peace–because they weren’t tormented by the curse of ambition. By contrast, his father and Uncle Don were consumed by their ambitions, which paradoxically made their worlds smaller and less comfortable than those who weren’t afflicted by the curse, for ambition meant never being satisfied, to be always hungering for something more, constantly pushing forward because no success could ever be big enough to quell the need for new and even bigger successes, the compulsion to turn one store into two stores, then two stores into three stores, to be talking now about building a fourth store and even a fifth store, just as one book was merely a step on the way to another book, a lifetime of more and more books, which required the same concentration and singleness of purpose that a businessman needed in order to become rich. Alexander the Great conquers the world, and then what? He builds a rocket ship and invades Mars.

[k3369] It wasn’t that anyone was unkind to him, or that anyone harassed him, or that he was made to feel unwelcome. As with every other school, there were friendly boys and neutral boys and nasty boys, but not even the nastiest among them ever taunted Ferguson for being a Jew. Hilliard might have been a stuffy, jacket-and-tie sort of place, but it also preached tolerance and the virtues of gentlemanly self-control, and any act of overt prejudice would have been dealt with harshly by the authorities. More subtly, and more confusingly, what Ferguson had to contend with was a guileless sort of ignorance that seemed to have been injected into his classmates at birth. Even Doug Hayes, the ever amiable and good-hearted Dougie Hayes, who had made a point of befriending Ferguson from the moment he arrived at Hilliard, who had been the first boy to invite him to a birthday party and had subsequently asked him over to his parents’ townhouse on East Seventy-eighth Street no fewer than a dozen times, could still ask, after having known Ferguson for nine months, what he was planning to do on Thanksgiving.

Eat turkey, Ferguson said. That’s what we do every year. My mother and I go to my grandparents’ apartment and eat turkey with stuffing and gravy.

Oh, Dougie said. I had no idea.

Why not? Ferguson answered. Isn’t that what you do?

Of course. I just didn’t know your people celebrated Thanksgiving.

My people?

You know. Jewish people.

Why wouldn’t we celebrate Thanksgiving?

Because it’s kind of an American thing, I guess. The Pilgrims. Plymouth Rock. All those English guys with the funny black hats who came over on the Mayflower.

Ferguson was so bewildered by Dougie’s comment that he didn’t know what to say. 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.

[k6244] 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. The question was: What world did Ferguson inhabit now, and how had that world changed for him?

[k14914] 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. That was the only answer Ferguson could come up with.