48 thoughts on “4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster

  1. 1.0
    Pages 1 – 15

    “, and after several reinventions and expansions,”

    A complex but easy to absorb history of Jews migrating to New York from Europe in 1900, one man in particular, now with an absurdly chance adopted name to try hide his roots, and the family spawned, their own chance encounters, including a blind date, as if destiny was meant and not meant all at once. Engaging, characterful and believable, with equally chance reference to the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt in Amsterdam (cf the book I an concurrently reviewing here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/the-curious-case-of-jan-torrentius-brian-howell/)

    This is a massive, deceptively old-fashioned family saga of a book and it will probably take me to the end of my life to complete it, if then! These first few pages cover a lot of time but have hardly scratched the surface of what I anticipate to be a symphony of changelings (cf this other book I am concurrently reviewing here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2017/09/22/new-fears/)

  2. 1.0
    Pages 15 – 35

    “, for the Gods were irrational, Rose decided,”

    Stanley and Rose (our hero’s parents giving birth to him as Archibald Isaac Ferguson on March 3rd 1947, thus just under a year older than me) are beautifully built as characters, starting with the hilariously numbered points of why she should or should not marry him, a Love story built gradually, irrationally, yet with utter believability. Her difficulties with pregnancy included, and she read a lot of good novels to stay her pace to allow this one birth to last till its fruition. But not ‘Tristram Shandy’ listed among them. Tolstoy, though.
    All events with the telling backdrop of our world’s real history. War and all.
    This book is irresistible, so far. A story that is experimental only because it is decision-tentative, NOT because it is contravening any traditional rules of simple stylish prose and the great story-telling powers exemplified by many of those books in Rose’s reading list during her literal as well as literary confinement…

  3. 1.1

    “His father worked. That was what grown men did.”

    Ferguson, at five, being an ‘only’ child (like me), creates an imaginary brother, someone in whom cousin Francie (the name of a so far loveable character, I notice among many other background and foreground characters) pretends also to believe. As I believe in all of them. His father Stanley with Hopalong Cassidy farts. And much more to consume me. I love his mother Rose’s photographic studio, turning photos into painted portraits. Rembrandt effect again? But the bad luck and frictions between family are all present, too, of course. And other people around with darker skin. Not coloured photos. A people panoply. Seven channels on TVs in New York? We only had one channel in England at that time.

  4. 1.2

    “…America has gone mad.”

    And that everything has to be done because it has already been done – falling out of a tree, breaking a leg, getting an air conditioner in his room, learning about the fallibility of existence, the paradox of guilt and innocence, the sense of logical predestination in his Mum’s new photo shop being called Roseland and the early pinning of his cousin Francie…
    Or not?
    Life itself is sometimes photoshopped?
    Intrigued that the man’s name in this chapter’s last sentence means something indeterminate to me as well as to Ferguson. Does that mean we have both somehow forgotten why?
    I love the way Ferguson’s life flows with beautifully adept prose and like the finest syrup of its own seemingly autonomous narration.

  5. 1.3

    “It has to be done.”

    It is slowly dawning on me that to tell you of what happens to Ferguson as he grows up would be a spoiler. Even to say that is a sort of spoiler.
    Tomorrow, I may have a different viewpoint. But today that is what I think. Who knows whether a tragedy today will be a blessing tomorrow? Numbered points of a dreaded audit trail in real life or someone else’s itemised plan for a fiction book they intend to write? This book is putting new vantage points on my own life and what has happened and what should have happened. Is it a James Stewart wonderful life with the cinema films listed at the end of this chapter, ones that my own parents saw in the 1950s, wonderful evenings out of the house and sinking themselves into alternative worlds? — but not that so much as a perceived reality of events, chance or deliberate, as born from an authorially alternative God-like power. A genius authority or one where “his mind was no more developed than a child’s”?

  6. 1.4

    “, his father’s dark-theater swoons…”

    “, so much time that his father had become all but invisible to him…”

    And other glitches between, but between what?
    Ferguson studying many fathers to text his own father’s fatherdom. Baseball and books. A new uncle who wrote two giant bookish biographies beyond Ferguson’s still young understanding in 1956. In many ways this giant book itself puts his own biography beyond him. An autobiography without having lived the biography on which it is based? Ferguson is given to and then snatched from satisfyingly companionable cousinship, by grownups’ marital fragility. The growing pangs. The realisation of the moment itself. But which moment?
    I realise that I cannot do a proper gestalt real-time review of this book, because of reasons that, if I told you those reasons, would make such a fact even more a fact. Amid Trump’s alternative facts?
    I shall continue reading this major novel for our times, a book so flowingly good, so bifurcatively seasoned. I shall only report back here with my comments after reading the whole of 2 that seems to start with 2.1. That may take some time!

  7. Page 141

    I might also mention specific items as I go through, before encapsulation. For instance, Ferguson growing up in 2.1 always has 9 on his back when playing sport. This resonates with the obsession about the no. 9 toy sportsman that Boris has in THE UNCONSOLED, the novel I read just before 4321.

  8. Page 148
    Did Robert Frost’s reading of his own poem at JFK’s inauguration change because of the wind blowing the original one away?
    Ferguson watches the ceremony on TV while taking a sickie from school.

    • 2.1

      “everything the same, everything different”

      Including TS Eliot’s Unreal City? Not sure which detail is exactly right, which one creatively unreal. Is this the alternative fact made good, the JFK assassination. JFK, Ferguson’s hero. I could not resist at least partially commenting now on 2.1, having just completed it. Two girls for 15 and 16 year old Ferguson, the first a clumsy but at times happy affair. The second with Amy, all consuming to him and to us. His first unremembered meeting with Amy when both were 3 year olds, whether a myth or a truth, will remain for me as a landmark in literature, as a precursor of later love.
      This unmissable book conveys the essence of America in a channel of time passing. And of youthful love. And much more. But which America? The one that leads to Trump?
      (The Robert Frost Reading is a clue, perhaps?)

  9. Page 186

    “Books moved forward in straight lines from beginning to end, whereas newspapers were always in several places at once, a hodgepodge of simultaneity and contradiction…
    […] …that was what the world was, he felt, a big, churning mess, with millions of things happening in it at the same time.”

  10. Page 250

    “, and the fact that they were always the same even when they were different seemed to make them more real than any other characters in movies, for if Laurel and Hardy were always Laurel and Hardy, Ferguson reasoned, that must have meant they were eternal.”

    …which seems highly significant within the terms of this book. (I am in the midst of 2.3 at the moment). Not much I can now tell you without spoiling this compelling narrative, other than the fact that Ferguson’s life events bifurcate with increasing substantiality of repercussions.

    “, hating God for not being God,”
    Half-inspired from dialling 4 3 2 1, this was written today by myself –



    “When you are born, life is mapped out for you. Unless, of course, things change, even very small things changing, just one small thing being able to alter the course of your whole lifetime, and the whole world’s course will alter, too, alongside and as a result of your own one small change, huge swathes of human fate changed by your making any arbitrary decision, however trivial. This is not the same thing as any old butterfly effect in chaos theory, but what I shall now – for the first time – call the CALL HOME syndrome. You see, when you are about to make a decision in your life, you are able instinctively to call home first, calling back to the base point of your birth when life was originally mapped out for you, so as to check that you are not contravening anything untoward in it.”

    I looked at him with some amusement. This was not pub talk, as we weren’t in a pub. His whiskers were afire with the sunset. His eyes dead serious. Older than me, but I knew experience did not necessarily come with age. Dependable experience, anyway.

    He kept repeating “call home” as if it was an incantation.

    “To call home is a smart thing to do,” he continued, thus breaking his thought patterns in the process, looking up, as he did, at the darkening sky with a stoicism that contrasted with his fingers playing nervously in his lap.

    “And does home call you back?” I asked. I was half-joking at least.

    “When most of us were born, there was nothing smart about communication,” he said, as if ignoring me. “You had dodgy connections, trunk calls, A and B buttons, an operator who put you through when she could, and a handle for cranking on some telephones. Life with its careful destiny was susceptible to such bad connections. Now, though, we have smart sophistication, and calling home is more decisive, longer lasting, with further potential reach, and capable of precise digital adjustment. This makes chaos seem more controllable. But in reality the call home syndrome is decidedly more chaotic than the mere rudimentary chaos we knew as children. Calling home now sometimes reaches beyond home, towards deeper and darker realms that preceded your home point, towards the tangled incoherence of your pre-birth machinations of trial mapping, and thus towards the tangled incoherence of the whole world’s mapping, involving all us others as well as just yourself. The butterfly becomes a monster, lurching from critical moment to critical moment.”

    By now, I had ceased listening to his nonsense. I had already called home, and made sure he would never cross my path in the first place. Time for me to sleep anyway.

  11. Page 326

    (In media res 2.4)
    From Laurel & Hardy, then, to Archie Ferguson & Artie Federman, and, following a brain aneurysm, the condition of being human if not a human being is lent to a pair of shoes, Hank & Frank, due to become perhaps the most substantial double-act digression in all literature, created as a story within a story by one of the bifurcated characters belonging to the central character in a version of this book only readable in a certain alternate world that matches your own alternate world where you happen to read it.

  12. Overhawling towards Dr. Pangloss on page 368 (in media res 3.1)

    “, as if the two of them were a pair of butterfly wings he wore on his back to keep himself aloft, he who could be so heavy at times, so earthbound,”

    “His hand was no longer his hand.”

    With ill-matching gloves, now, beyond the normal leftness and rightness of gloves …. or beyond shoes like Frank and Hank.

    “, a substitute Amy who was going through the motions of the real Amy,”

  13. Page 396 (in media res 3.3)

    How can lives and history change so much, without no-one noticing?
    And is Trump always the endgame, whichever bifurcation we follow?

    “, by having a gift for saying the most obnoxious things with a boldness and theatricality…”

    “, a place of a million butterflies,”

    “, he loved playing so hard that he was no longer aware of being inside his own body, no longer conscious of who he was,”

  14. Page 442 (in media res 3.4)

    3.3 involved scenes in and around a cinema showing, among other films, Les Enfants du Paradis, scenes that take you emotionally by the scruff of the scrotum. Writing has no such power, but here it somehow does.
    (Cf “His hand was no longer his hand.” earlier in this book.)

    And amid racial or political angsts…
    14 year olds in a baseball event also portrayed as an out of body experience, out of the head, not knowing quite who you are, a bit like this novel itself if it were a living person also out of its own paper paged head.
    And the paragraph at the bottom of page 427 is crucial in this way, a sort of aneurysm in itself in the book’s brain.
    Books, with their titles, books that Ferguson reads, too. Within this book’s own pages. A funnelling motion of unruly time.

  15. Page 459 (still in media res 3.4)

    This novel is becoming seriously great literature, if it hasn’t already become so. And my using the word ‘literature’ should not be a put-off to anyone. It is the sort of book that will touch all lives, here the ravages of pancreatic cancer, silent, seemingly manageable, marriages in trouble, and the wrenching attrition caused by the twists and turns of fate. A fate that is more complex than we can ever imagine, a non-linear fate that we all face, and this book makes that truly felt for perhaps the first time.
    Great creative writing that ironically succeeds when describing creative writing that does not succeed during a life (in the .4 strand) uselessly striving to become the life of a great writer.

  16. Page 492 (in media res 4.1)

    “words responding to words.”

    A.I. Ferguson’s up and down relationship as an 18 year old with Amy, and a writing job with a newspaper, which is significant in the context of this book’s dealing with the Newspaper/ Fiction Novel dichotomy of narrative patterns … and fresh racial tensions and America – Viet Nam history as backdrop… the text continues to flow like the finest literary syrup into my naked eyes, best close up than at a distance with reading glasses, but I don’t know why. I am addicted to this book. I do not want it to end.

    “…as if you were living in two places at once, the drab present and the uncertain future, boiling down your existence into a set of numbers….”

    “surely it was better and altogether astonishing to start over again as butterflies, even if the life of a butterfly was more precarious and sometimes lasted just a single day.”

  17. Page 522 (in media res 4.3)

    As we are ineluctably compelled to follow the three lives and the one non-life of Ferguson, are they independent states of being or unbeing, with no crossover? And does his life or lack of life in any one of these states affect history itself? For example, can JFK remain unassassinated, as a result of Ferguson’s minutiae of life not at least one of these alternate states,
    This book so far does not answer that question. So far it is not a SF book?

  18. Page 541 (still in media res 4.3)

    A greenhorn film critic, still. More ambidextrous sexual yearnings, and a loss of virginity at a brothel with a slim black girl. Kennedy is assassinated again, it seems.
    Trump this minute released a tweet saying he will release the JFK papers tomorrow.
    8.58 pm British Summer Time.

  19. Page 567 (in media res 4.4)

    In the previous strand, a film critic, in this one, a writer of short stories. This book has the unique power of suspended disbelief and a faith in belief beyond a gestalt of cinema and literature. Both have Amy in them. But is he bi-sexual in both? How many of this book’s readers are bi-sexual, without admitting it to themselves? Addicted to sex? Risk or care, or a combination of both? Thoreau, Kafka, but no Paul Auster, no Philip K Dick?
    This book continues to prove that there are still great works of literature possible. This one still in the real-time pipeline as I read it.

  20. Page 594 (still in media res 4.4)

    “…for thwarted desire was a poison that seeped into every part of you, and once your veins and inner organs were fully saturated with the stuff, it traveled upward toward your brain and burst right through the top of your skull.”

    A new complex pattern of families are created by remarriage or by an alternate world as a palimpsest of another alternate world or a torrent of events that mutually consume each other via your reading eyes. Part of your consciousness at least needs to be disengaged in order to follow that torrent of words with optimum efficacy. Naked eyes close to the words on the turning pages.

  21. Page 619 (end of 4.4)

    “What he did bring up, however, and what constituted the heart of the letter, was how distressed he was to have learned that his father had removed him as a dependent on his income tax returns. It felt as if he had been erased, he wrote,…”


    “A man named Lazlo Flute is out taking a walk in the country. He comes to a crossroads and must choose between the three possibilities of going left, right, or straight ahead.”

  22. Page 630 (beginning of 5.1)

    “…and from that point on it was impossible to say the word America without also thinking the word madness.”

    And stuck in a lift during a power-cut –

    “So dark in there, so disconnected from everything, so outside the world or what Ferguson had always imagined to be the world that it was slowly becoming possible to ask himself if he was still inside his own body.”

  23. Page 657 (end of 5.1)

    “Studies in Literature. Full Semester (in lieu of required Freshman Composition course because of F.’s good score on A.P. exam): A seminar focused on the study of one book — Tristram Shandy.”

    I told you so

    “The post-war children born in 1947 had little in common with the wartime children born just two or three years earlier, a generational rift had opened up…”

    And blank protest signs…
    F and A in complete bodily unison, with odd anti-war forays in 1966 as they reach the cusp of age 19.
    This book gets better each day. I don’t want it to end. For more than one reason.

  24. Page 706 (end of 5.3)

    I could not bring myself to quote from this catharsis. When Vivian first met F in this book earlier, i.e. when he was 15, she said come back when he was a bit older and that they would be good friends. In fact at his age leading up to 19, they do become good friends over literature and the writing of F’s own book about Laurel and Hardy, V’s own book she has just completed having been about Chardin. I assumes this was Teilhard de Chardin. Rembrandt next? Or Jan Torrentius? I assumed, too, during his stay with her in Paris, they would fall into a toy boy / older woman affair. And perhaps they will. Perhaps they DO in whatever world you read this book. But any assumptions are beyond the reach of machinations of proclivity and providence.
    This is strong literature, perhaps even stronger than it seems on the surface, and you will not leave this section unscathed. Scathed in many different ways.

    • Page 713. (Start of 5.4)
      “, and spend the afternoon there looking at the Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Chardins. Okay?”

      Having just read above (complete with Oxford comma), I now realise that the Chardin in 5.3 was not Teilhard de Chardin!

  25. Page 736 (in media res 5.4)

    “The world is teeming: anything can happen.”
    John Cage.
    – the world’s first blank story was published in NEMONYMOUS TWO (2002), a story entitled 4’ 33”.
    Ferguson at Princeton, developing future love with Celia, holding back as a way of going forward later. Tennis matches, word games, thing-name versus person-name….
    “Laughter to the point of suffocation. And what a good sport it was for overcoming the fears and trembles of a young traveler who had just left home and found himself standing at the border crossing between the written past and the unwritten future.”

  26. Page 758 (end of 5.4)

    “Each one of us carries around his own world, which seldom overlaps with anyone else’s world. By reducing the size of our bodies, we hope to diminish the spaces that lie between us.”
    — from THE DROONS

    Part of this particular Ferguson’s creative fiction MULLIGAN’S VOYAGES!
    Meanwhile, however, the spaces between his sperms cannot even be hoped to diminish.
    I think I now know Ferguson better than any person I have ever known. That’s because I have more sides of vantage point to view him, even beyond cubism. A cubism or gestalt real-time review triangulation by alternate worlds as well as time and space. Plus an instinct of truth that only fiction can add.

  27. Page 776 (in media res 6.1)

    “: a mental painting composed of several areas bathed in an intense, clarifying light and other areas occluded by dimness, shapeless figures standing in murky brown corners of the canvas, and here and there splotches of all-black nothingness, the blackout dark of the black dormitory elevator.”

    Memories now as if the author through this particular Ferguson has an increasingly senile view of the past. A Ferguson who meets Fleming again, but in this strand Ferguson has not developed bi-sexuality. A nurture rather than nature view of sexuality? Meanwhile, in this strand he sees his grandmother and mother in new positive lights, for different reasons. And here, too, he is over-pragmatic about money in this Summer of Love as they called 1967 to the detriment of his only real relationship with Amy. Strands of time are never plaited.

    • Only having reached 1967 thus far into the book, is this massive work only part one of Ferguson’s life? Each strand seems to have the same rock-steady history outside or alongside each strand of his life. No light touch of an individual’s butterfly effect here on the course of politics as we know it, race riots or not,

  28. Page 799 (still in media res 6.1)

    Ferguson’s theory of concentric circles….

    “Five realms, five separate realities, but each one was connected to the others, which meant that when something happened in the outer circle (the war), its effects could be felt throughout America, New York, Columbia, and every last dot in the inner circle of private, individual lives.”

    “, and by early 1968 Ferguson was beginning to feel that everyone had gone crazy, as crazy as the crazy people who talked out loud to themselves on. Roadway, and bit by bit he ha£ become as crazy as everyone else.”

    And today, for me, is North Vietnam then today’s North Korea, to which general area Trump is now visiting?
    And will F and Amy ever get back to sleeping in the same bed?

  29. Page 819 (end of 6.1)

    It is becoming attritional to read of the 1968 issues of student uprising, but the self-harming relationship, the one divided by ideals between Ferguson and Amy, is still a poignant backdrop to it. Topped off by F’s translation of Apollinaire…

  30. Page 852 (in media res 6.3)

    “, and although it took Ferguson some time to adjust to an all-silent screen and a theater with no sounds in it but the coughs and sneezes of the crowd and an occasional crackling from the projector, he came to appreciate the power of that silence,…”

    The silence of this book, too, as I carry within my mind all the strands at once, the strands that are a single person called Archie Ferguson. It is as if a gestalt person lives and breathes, more real somehow, in the room with me, even though certain strands, as he gets older, differ so much between them because of fate and butterfly effect, contradict each other, making him live. And I was so pleased he received an acceptance for his Laurel and Hardy book, tempered by the dual intentions of its prospective publisher. And then I was devastated by other likely news for this chapter’s strand, tempered meanwhile by awareness that at least two other strands promise to subsist. (I can’t bear the thought of this endless book ending.)

  31. Page 878 (end of 6.3)

    Ferguson is in consensual compliance of separation from grinding interaction with Albert and Aubrey to the atonal sound of the ‘bray from beyond’, also inspired by the concept of Anne Frank In Hollywood, this alternate world then taking a left not a right turn, or alternately vice versa, depending what country’s road system one was using. Not bray, but screech of brakes from beyond. Almost as if I never finished reading this book, because tomorrow something happens to me that I cannot predict…


  32. Page 921 (still in media res 6.4)

    “It’s a complicated world , isn’t it, Archie?”

    Watching ‘Waiting for Godot’.

    “The man who had once been married to his mother had vanished into the shadows of an alternate world that no longer intersected with the world his son lived in, and if the man was not certifiably dead, he had gone missing a long time ago and would never be found at any time in the future.”

    “: And it also means something to talk about ‘living in the pages of a book.’” – Wittgenstein.

  33. Page 943 (end of 6.4)

    “, lies were the accepted currency of American political discourse now, and every roach-infested, piss-poor coffee joint up and down the length of Manhattan had a neon sign in the window that read: the best cup of coffee in the world.”

    And it is still 1967!
    Ferguson still with hope in his affair with Celia, but is caught up by tantamount to a racist and anti-intellectual barroom brawl. Threatened with prison. And he starts his novel: The Capital of Ruins.
    All strands of Ferguson maketh the man?

  34. Page 970 (in media res 7.1)

    “, he felt as if he had been trapped inside a stranger’s body and could no longer recognize himself when he looked at his face in the mirror, which was also true of the thoughts he was thinking whenever he looked inside his head, since they were mostly the thoughts of a stranger as well; cynical thoughts, splenetic thoughts, disgusted thoughts that had nothing to do with the person he had once been.”

    Godard’s Weekend, meanwhile, was similarly seminal in my own surreal life.

    Snap decisions to dally a night with a nice ‘slut’ he had known for some time without before dallying with her – and to join a new journalistic job just by dint of the word ‘monstrous’ by the man offering that job … life is like that, I guess, with each fork in the road a possible road to ruin or joy or just nothing…

  35. Page 1002 (end of 7.1)

    “, to see Kennedy’s promise fulfilled as he watched a pair of American astronauts walk on the surface of the moon,”

    More resonance with F’s new journalism job in Rochester. Student demos, prison riots. And his new woman, ALMOST the one he was destined for if he couldn’t have Amy?
    But then there is a puff of Pall Malls…
    This book continues to pass through me like the finest syrup, the medicine of history, as I consume compulsively – through my naked 70 year old eyes, when I should be wearing glasses – the text close to my eyes. It is as if I am F himself. All four strands of him, two now missing. Or three?

  36. 7B54380E-E1AD-4838-95BA-87472A15C2ABPage 1040 (in media res 7.4)

    From a puckish view of sexmad Boswell as in Boswell’s Johnson (Samuel, not Boris) to the matters of positive financial change in this strand of Archie F’s life for reasons you will see when you, too, are consumed by this book, ever teetering on some edge. In fact, I just went for a short walk along the seafront nearby, myself, wondering if I would return safely to finish the last 30 pages, hopefully later this evening! (I took this photo of near-sunset while there just now.)

    “We can’t change what happened, Archie.”

    “What if he had gone to Columbia instead of Princeton. And if he had gone there, how would his life have been different from the one he was leading now?”

    And a stalemate of stubbornesses and, separately, a formal argument of causes and rebuttals with regard to Celia…fiction as Contract and Furcation.

  37. Page 1070 (end of 7.4)

    “the plethora of anywheres”

    I made it! I never thought I would.
    I have finished this momentous, monumental book. I can safely say at the age of 70, it has changed the way I view life. And I have really got to KNOW Archie F. Meanwhile, since earlier today, no one else has “dropped dead on tennis courts or anywhere else”, or even while looking at sunsets. Invisible money, a yield or interest in ghosts, but now we really get real, I sense. A very satisfactory ending of this fiction, its meta-fiction and truth, amid Vietnam drafting concerns. In another strand, F had lost fingers and would have avoided being drafted that way… And now I sort of doubt that particular reality, because here we are told that drafting was down to a lottery of birthdates! Did that REALLY happen? And his on-going novel. Sounds fascinating. “…the book would always be his, even if no more than seventeen people ever read it.” And the random chance of Names and Nemonymity, as one travels between this book’s prolusions or its four strands of existence. Strands or Pall Malls. ‘You are never alone with a Strand’ (google this.)


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