Paul Auster’s Novel 4321

A review by Isabelle Feilchenfeldt

When I was confronted with Paul Auster’s almost 900-page long novel, I dreaded the thought of starting it due to its length. And yet, I almost cried when finishing it within a week as I was devastated by the thought of it ending.

4321 by Paul Auster is one of the best novels I have ever read. By describing the life of little Ferguson through four alternate universes, one becomes attached to the little boy, as we see him grow up and develop over the course of his lives.

The structure of the book is slightly confusing at first. Each chapter is split into four parts and each part tells one possible narrative over the course of the book. Each chapter is a new stage in Ferguson’s life. In the first chapter, the reader is left confused with what the actual story is, as they are not yet accustomed to this structure. However, by the time one has reached chapter two, it becomes clear and we are able to fully immerse ourselves into Fergusons’ lives.

We are taken on a journey in Newark New Jersey in the 1950’s and see Ferguson grow up. Confronted with his parents love stories; their divorces, deaths or happy marriages, their money problems and communism, we witness Ferguson’s childhood. It continues with his first romances and sexual adventures, followed by his experience in different universities and ultimately his working life. In all of these versions, Ferguson turns out to be a very different person, however some themes never differ. We see that no matter what, his love with Amy is not meant to be and still, we never stop rooting for them. Similarly, his closeness with his mother is always a main topic.  

Auster’s novel brushes on an interesting debate: Nature versus Nurture. Are a person’s genes more important than their environment? According to 4321, nurture seems to trump nature. Ferguson as a little boy, is pretty much the same person in all four parts. However, the events of his childhood drastically transform him into different versions of himself. The death of his father in part three, turns him into a completely different person than in the other parts. Subsequent circumstances even cause him to explore his sexuality further, which he does not do in his other lives. His injury where he loses a thumb in part one again changes him in significant ways and the death of Federman in part four rattles him to his very core and leads him to change into a completely new person.

In the second part, young Ferguson dies early on, as he is struck by lightning. Though tragic, one is able to dismiss this death easily as we have not yet become attached to Ferguson. Furthermore, we are not yet aware of the fate which awaits the other Fergusons. The next Ferguson to die, features in part three. Whilst the first death was bearable, this one is so bitter and sad that I could not help but to lose a few tears. After overcoming the hardships of his father’s death, his crisis with his own sexuality and finally finding a footing in Paris and successfully finishing a novel, it seems almost too cruel to let him die on the way to his book launch party. Only later, when it is revealed that the Ferguson in part four is the real author of the book and that his intention was to let all others die, we finally understand why this had to happen.

Not only we are struck hard by this. Here we find out that the first Ferguson dies in a fire, but the author found it too painful to write this scene until the very end.

Now we understand that the fourth Ferguson was the puppet master all along, forcing us to become attached to his alternative versions of one and the same person. This attachment is even stronger than usual, as we feel we have seen all versions of the same person. In a normal narrative, we are only ever able to see the traits of a person which have come to light due to their upbringing, surrounding, etc. But here, we are confronted with several possible versions of his life and himself.

In conclusion I would recommend 4321 to anyone one who loves a good book. Its story is comical, nostalgic and moving at the same time whilst never failing to entertain.

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