The thing about literature is that as one generation of giants fall, there’s always another ready to take its place. The most recent winter of titans concluded when John Updike passed away and Philip Roth announced his retirement. We’ve got a young generation on the rise with Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But the generation now at the height of its power includes names like Don DeLillo and, most especially, Paul Auster.
Every bookstore’s new arrival table is always groaning under the weight of at least one densely packed novel written by an enthusiastic young male author who aspires to join the ranks of Auster and Adichie and Updike. You know the kind of novel I’m talking about: the one that tries to thematically pack the entire universe between two covers, even as it aspires to dazzle the critics with ostentatious acts of linguistic gymnastics. It’s at least 800 pages. And it will be forgotten in 18 months or less, because those kinds of elephantine, cram-the-world-into-a-book books make for lousy debut novels.
Unlike those dense books by shallow talents, Auster’s first novel in seven years, 4 3 2 1, reflects the craft and the soulfulness that he has invested in his work for the last three decades. It’s a big gorilla-choker of a novel with a massive scope that earns its high concept. In brief, it’s the story of the life of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the grandson of Russian Jews who came to New York City in search of their own sliver of American success. But in practice, it’s much more complicated than that.
In a series of eight long chapters, 4 3 2 1 cracks Ferguson’s story into quarters. Auster follows Ferguson’s life through four alternate timelines. He runs these lives in parallel, and it’s like a master composer applying variations to a theme. In some of the timelines, Ferguson is successful. In others, he’s a failure. In some of his lives, he falls in love and grows as a person. In other lives, he breaks bones and ruins relationships.
4 3 2 1 builds on questions that Auster has asked again and again in his work since he first published his New York Trilogy: how much of our lives are constructed on top of the quicksand of coincidence? Can there be such a thing as a successful life? Do we ever really learn lessons? Auster writes his usual metafictional intercessions into the text — Ferguson was born exactly one month after Auster, in the same city — but here they feel less like Auster’s typical commentary on the bizarreness of the act of reading and more like a deep bow toward autobiography.
At nearly 900 pages, this is a big book whose every page is earned. It’s a story by a novelist who is still learning and aspiring and interacting with literature. And Auster’s not done leaving his giant footprints on the earth. In the middle of January, Auster told The Guardian that he believed Donald Trump’s election to be “the most appalling thing I’ve seen in politics in my life,” and he made a vow: “I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself.” He’s not done with us yet.