4 3 2 1 begins with a joke. The Yiddish phrase Ikh hob fargessen—I forgot!—uttered in panic to an immigration official, turns the hapless Isaac Reznikoff into Ichabod Ferguson, progenitor of Fergusons, second and third generation Jews in New York City and the New Jersey suburbs, the flower of whom, one Archie Isaac Ferguson, becomes a writer not unlike—we are not surprised—Paul Auster.
A joke, but one at the beginning of a very big book. A marker of significance, of ambition and promised heft. Ikh hob fargessen feels already like Call me Ishmael. We know a lot is going to follow. And not only because we have a kilo of paper in hand and 800 pages to get through.
Much has been made of the structure of 4 3 2 1, alternative threads repeating the same time spans. Characters die, and then they don’t. Relationships have blossomed and then they haven’t. Ferguson goes to Columbia, or to Princeton. The family are rich except when they are poor. But in the reading, these counter-moves, these contradictory outcomes, precipitated by events of an arbitrary and cruel and capricious character, these disruptions in time and space, don’t feel quite like a literary game. They feel more like an extended quarrel with God. Why are things as they are?
It is in part the voice: majestically flat, omniscient, somnolently even-handed and steady, yet always interesting, Big sentences, big paragraphs, like draught animals pulling heavy freight. You’re not always interested in what is in the wagon, but transfixed by the heaving flanks and straining harness straps. Lists figure largely—lists of books, of films, of baseball players. The public history of its time reels past again and again—Kennedy, Bay of Pigs, Johnson, Viet Nam, the steps of Low Library, Nixon. This repetition-with-variation feels organic, rather than merely a literary conceit or experiment. Those critics who think Auster might have done more with less are wrong, as anyone who is a writer by compulsion will understand. To say something differently is to say something different.
The white whale of this Moby Dick of a book is the American adolescent male. The third generation American adolescent male. Ferguson, or shall we say the multiple Fergusons, forever, it seems, fifteen years old. Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield over and over again. Priapism and idealism. The taut bowstring that connects the cock and the brain. Has anyone written better about it?
In the end nausea-inducing. Not the cock. Not the sex. Certainly not the often tender capacity for attachment, for affection, for love. Nausea rather in the narcissism of a writer writing the formation of a writer, a precocious genius of course, who turns out to have discovered the exact same writerly insight that has driven the author in creating him. A monument of self love. And why not? Know thyself is never a bad injunction and who among us will cast the first stone?
Then there is the quarrel with God. Why does shit happen? 4 3 2 1 is full of shit happening. People burn to a crisp. Trees fall on heads. Friends drop dead from an aneurysm. Writing évènementiel. A questioning of the classic moral and psychological tale, in which a hero, possessed of character, shall we say, is tested by events. Here the event is not a test but an alteration in the rules, a tossing—a throwing—into another reality. A reason for the scale of the work, for the drumbeat of news, of headlines. Therefore a deeply political text, and we read it now, as it happens, at the hour of Trump, malign American adolescent male, in which there is no question at all of character, tested or otherwise, and await with dread the event. Assassination? A Reichstag-fire incident?