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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Auster’s hero and narrator is Archibald Ferguson, born to Rose and Stanley, children of Jewish immigrants, in 1947 Newark. His father and uncles run an appliance-store empire. His father owns a small repair shop. His father dies. His parents divorce and remarry. His loving mother is a small-town portrait photographer; she is a famous, museum-grade photographer. Ferguson attends public school. He attends private school. He plays baseball and basketball. He struggles with unbridled lust and loneliness. He is enthralled by Laurel and Hardy; he “publishes” a handwritten newspaper in grade school. He’s a stellar student; he’s a delinquent. At 14, he writes a precociously knowing story titled “Sole Mates” (presented here in full) about a pair of shoes owned by a cop. He freaks out his English teacher. He loves summer camp; summer camp is catastrophic. He has many brilliant mentors. He attends Princeton; he attends Columbia; he refuses to go to college and moves to Paris. He becomes a sportswriter, a film critic, a fiction writer. He is sexually involved with men and women. He is obsessed with Amy Schneiderman, his friend, cousin, stepsister, lover, and polestar. Confusing? That’s because there are actually four Archie Fergusons.
Each Ferguson is precisely the same at the genetic level and, to a large degree, in temperament and passions. His narrative voice is consistent, as is his fierce attention to life, from sensuous nuance to the spinning roulette wheel of city life to war and profound social upheavals. But the particulars—circumstances, events, accomplishments, and losses—vary in ways great and small. Told in alternating chapters, these four variations on a character’s life are disorienting until the novel establishes a quadraphonic rhythm, and it becomes clear that Auster is conducting a grand experiment, not only in storytelling, but also in the endless nature-versus-nurture debate, the perpetual dance between inheritance and free will, intention and chance, dreams and fate. This elaborate investigation into the big “what if” is also a mesmerizing dramatization of the multitude of clashing selves we each harbor within.
Two other prominent Jewish American male writers—together, with Auster, they form a nearly three-generational spread—have lately written loosely autobiographical, socially and historically conscious family sagas narrated by a boy becoming a man: Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (2016) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am (2016). For Auster, 4 3 2 1 is his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his The Adventures of Augie March. A paean to youth, desire, books, creativity, and unpredictability, it is a four-faceted bildungsroman and an Ars Poetica, in which Auster elucidates his devotion to literature and art. He writes, “To combine the strange with the familiar: that was what Ferguson aspired to, to observe the world as closely as the most dedicated realist and yet to create a way of seeing the world through a different, slighting distorting lens.” Auster achieves this and much more in his virtuoso, magnanimous, and ravishing opus.
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