I bought this book on the occasion of hearing Paul Auster speak about it at the 92 Street Y, an event we attended because our wonderful kids gave us tickets to it for Christmas. It was over a year before I found the dedication required to read an 866-page book. The weight alone is daunting.
At his talk he said that his father had died unexpectedly at the age of 66 and when he began thinking about having outlived him, he undertook this life review. He wrote it in record time, fearful that he would die before he finished it. This, of course, is no ordinary life review: he tells four stories about a child born in 1947 to Stanley and Rose Ferguson and how the different circumstances made for the differences in the four young Fergusons’ lives. This was the idea explored in Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. In the case of Auster’s book, the life review is the emphasis and “life” is actually “life up to adulthood.” He chews over as many aspects of life from 1947 to the early 1970s in New York City and suburban New Jersey as you can imagine.
Along with dramatic differences, there were many constants in each Archie Ferguson’s life. They all had one or more people introducing great literature and music into their young lives. All had an interest and ability in baseball or basketball. Dedication to reading and learning was a constant. Learning to be a writer by writing daily was a feature. All the Archies were very hard working and descriptions of their hours of study abound. Some of the same people enter each of their lives, but not always in the same role. Some of those appearances are of vital importance, like Amy Schneiderman, his soul mate in each case, sometimes a long-time love, sometimes a step-sister or a step-cousin. There’s the Columbia professor Andrew Fleming who hires one Archie to help him write a history of Columbia and the same Columbia professor Andrew Fleming who propositions another Archie for sex in Paris. One wonders what prompted those appearances.
These similarities made keeping the Archies’ stories in my head difficult. After lamenting my diminished memory, I wrote down the key differences in each Archie’s life. In fact the problem was they did not come alive as individuals for me; the dramatically different events of each young life did not make four fully-formed characters. The strength of the book for me is the life review and the close examination of that time period.
Two (possibly) extraneous parts that I loved in the book were the detailed description of the 1968 events at Columbia and the long story one of the Archies wrote about a pair of shoes named Hank and Frank. These seemed like bonuses to me. I must record a detail included in the description of 1968 at Columbia. Grayson Kirk delivered a speech at the University of Virginia calling for the end of the war in Vietnam. Mark Rudd wrote a letter in response to his remarks that ended with LeRoi Jones words, “Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick-up.” It was an interesting time.
One passage made me think of a book Auster wrote called Oracle Night. A book that Archie #4 wrote called The Scarlet Notebook describes the magical red notebook he bought because it called out to him and enables him to remember things he thought he had forgotten. In Oracle Night a writer buys a magical notebook in a stationary store that disappears. When the writer who is recovering from a serious illness opens the notebook, he finds his stories write themselves. Notebooks have an outsize importance to writers, no doubt.
Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1, Henry Holt and Company, 2017, 866 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.