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Parallel lives – ‘4321’

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Novel explores possibilities of diverging paths

The path we travel to become who we are is a unique one. The choices we make (and don’t make) – as well as those that are made (or not made) for us – steer us into a specific life.

Paul Auster has chosen to show us not one but four such paths in his latest novel “4321” (Henry Holt & Co; $32.50). In this wildly ambitious and meticulously conceived book, Auster plays out the early life of one New Jersey boy named Archibald “Archie” Ferguson in four different acts, each devoted to relating the voyage into adulthood through a tumultuous time in alternate and ever-diverging ways.

Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born in Newark in March of 1947 to Stanley and Rose (nee Adler) Ferguson. Such is our introduction to the young man whose life we will see play out in four parallel and very different ways.

One Archie might grow up in a stable, loving household, while another might have to deal with youthful tragedy. This Archie might excel in the classroom, while that one might dominate the playing field and still another might do both. Different scholastic experiences, different personal ones; different paths toward self-awareness and sexuality.

All will love and lose. All will have an inescapable connection to the passionate and enigmatic Amy Schneiderman. All will find themselves drawn to the chaos inherent to the country in the 1960s, the protests and the riots and the general societal upheaval. All will have a massive and enduring love for mother Rose.

Each Archie is fully realized, traveling the complicated path toward adulthood as best he can. The circumstances that surround him in each narrative drift away from one another – sometimes gradually, sometimes slowly, but constantly. The person that Archie Ferguson becomes also fragments from that singular beginning. His personality, his beliefs, his entire identity – it all differs from Archie to Archie. From adolescence to college and into adulthood, each journey is its own.

“4321” is an absolutely remarkable book. While one might consider the multiple timelines to be something of a gimmick, one would be wrong; in the hands of a masterful writer like Auster, it becomes something magnificent. It is not one beautiful, delicate, compelling story – it is four.

We watch as Archie travels a certain distance down each path, and as he reaches a particularly important crossroads, Auster takes us to the next narrative and shows us the same distance traveled on another Archie’s lifeline. The clarity of distinction that this creates allows all four lives to unfold at a similar pace and ultimately allows for the interconnectedness between lives that erases the separation even as it highlights it.

This book is something of a revelatory reading experience. Auster has created a deeply personal book – no surprise considering the nature of his oeuvre – that allows him as an artist to look back at what might have been. His own youth is reflected heavily in the book, with one Archie Ferguson living a life that bears marked similarities to Auster’s own. But through questioning the circumstances of his early situation, he is able to build to wildly different conclusions than his own.

The notion of language’s inherent power permeates the book, with every incarnation of Archie finding a connection to words, albeit in some fairly disparate ways. Language is how each Archie interacts with the world around him, how he connects. Love’s many forms are explored thoroughly, from the familial to the carnal and everything in between.

All of this takes place against the burning backdrop of the 1960s, the bubbling cauldron of Vietnam and civil rights and the sexual revolution all igniting with flames reflected in the eyes of Archie Ferguson. Auster’s evocation of that place and time is sensual and brutally visceral, conjuring forth a five-sensory understanding of a world at large that is generally unchanged by the individual divergences of one young man.

In “4321,” Auster has created a symphony in four movements, one life that becomes four. It sprawls, yet manages to feel lean; despite its considerable length, it never once feels the least bit overwritten. This is a book that tells the story it wants to tell in precisely the manner in which it wants to tell that story. Filled with beauty and ugliness, with love and fear, with humor and hubris and history, “4321” is unforgettable. 

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