I grieved when the hero of Paul Auster's novel died on page 180—but
especially so because this novel is almost 900 pages long. How would I
manage without a protagonist through all those remaining chapters?

But wily Mr. Auster’s had a backup plan. In fact he had three backup plans. In the
course of his wide-ranging historical novel
4-3-2-1, he deploys four different versions
of his main character Archie Ferguson, each one pursuing his own distinctive
coming-of-age story. There’s a whole alternative universe surrounding each of
these Archies. Mom and Dad may be the
same, along with a host of other major and
minor personages, but they are also subtly
different, making different decisions, large
and small, that set the four stories going
off in different directions.

In this unusual way, Auster has delivered
one of the strangest semi-autobiographical
novels of recent memory. You can view
4-3-2-1 in many ways, but overriding all of
these interpretations is the author's quest to
answer that most unanswerable of all questions: how would his life have been changed
if people had made different choices?

There is very little philosophical reflection in this book. But don’t be misled by the
fastidious obsession on incident and character. There’s plenty of theory here too,
although that must be supplied by the readers. One of the first conclusions a
perspicacious observer brings to the story of Archie Ferguson is that his parents'
decisions are even more important than our own.  Jean-Paul Sartre once famously
declared that we are artists who paint our own lives: "In life, a man commits himself
and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing." But if Auster is correct,
we are more like the Mona Lisa than Leonardo da Vinci, forced to smile or grimace
in a posture and setting determined by those who made us. In the case of Archie
Ferguson, so many key parameters of his life—finance, education, romance—are the
result of Mom and Dad’s decisions, that even we the readers squirm under the
constraints. And if you add in the genetic determinism that all of us embody, the
degrees of freedom in Auster's various alternative universes are depressingly

Leviathan by Paul Auster (reviewed by Ted Gioia)
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (reviewed by Ted Gioia)
Invisible by Paul Auster (reviewed by Ted Gioia)

Yet Auster stops short of absolute fatalism, and at times seems to suggest that our
goals and drives triumph in the face of all obstacles. Our four Archies face very
different opportunities and hurdles, yet each is destined to grow up to become an
author. Their moral and political values seem almost identical, differing more in tactics
and modes of engagement, and show a convergence across the four narratives
suggesting they are outgrowths of a born character rather than reactions to life's
slings and arrows. (I note in passing that these unchanging aspects of Ferguson’s
persona and biography are typically those in which he most resembles author Paul

I find the notion of multiple Austers quite fitting in this context. There has always been
a tension in this writer’s work, almost as if two different authors were battling for
supremacy. On the one hand, we have Auster the experimental post-modernist, and
that’s the person who would take delight in juxtaposing conflicting and incompatible
narratives in a single book. On the other hand, readers have grown familiar with Auster
the storyteller, who needs no tricks to keep them turning the pages. Despite the
extravagant conceit underlying this book, it’s actually the storytelling Auster who is
mostly in control here. And he is operating at top form, filling up each chapter with
rich incidents, compelling conflicts, comedy and farce, the tragic and the sublime.  
And of course there’s plenty of actual history here too. How can there not be, when
Archie Ferguson comes of age in the midst of the Vietnam War and student protests,
assassinations and race riots, the sexual revolution and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll?

In an interview with
The Paris Review, Auster once cited an unexpected source of
inspiration. “The joke is the purest, most essential form of storytelling,” he told
Michael Wood. “Every word has to count.” There would seem to be almost nothing
in common between a tightly-constructed joke, and a 900-page novel; but one of the
great joys of reading
4-3-2-1 is how meticulously Auster constructs each scene in
his diverging dramas. The personal turmoils
of our hero rarely approach Dostoevskian
levels—Ferguson’s biggest infractions are
shoplifting books and getting into a barroom
brawl—but these are related with almost
cinematic vividness.  But even the smaller
crises of day-to-day live take on a kind of
dramatic intensification in these pages.

The most flamboyant part of this novel, its
complex four-part structure, makes only the
smallest contribution to its success. I found
it very easy to get my various Archies mixed up. When you go back and check a
previous chapter, you need to make sure you aren’t confusing Chapter 2-1 with
Chapter 2-2 or Chapter 2-3. (Yes, each chapter comes adjacent to its 3 variants.)  
This is a bit too much like keeping track of software upgrades for my taste, and if
you run into an incompatibility problem, the ramifications are far-reaching. For
example, Amy Schneiderman is our hero’s lover in one iteration of the story, and
his step-sister in another. At a certain point, I stopped worrying about the relationship
between these mutually exclusive family trees and timelines, and just decided to
enjoy each vignette on its own terms.

Archie Ferguson makes a lot of bad choices in the course of these four lifetimes.
But Paul Auster rarely falters. My biggest complaint is his reliance on implausible,
out-of-the-blue plot devices. Too many people die in strange, sudden ways during
the course of this long novel—Auster even makes use of a lightning bolt to
dispatch one of our protagonists. Violent accidents play too large a part in the
proceedings. I understand why our novelist makes these decisions—he wants to
show how chance events can shape a life. But if he needs to resort to lightning bolts
to make this point, he actually makes us doubt the very point he is trying to prove.

Even so, I am willing to suspend disbelief. In fact, a reader who tackles a novel that
presents four alternative versions of a single life is pretty much forced to do that.
And Auster rewards us with the sheer zeal and stamina of his storytelling. This is
his biggest novel, and I’m not just talking about its supersized page count or
massive accumulation of characters and incidents.  Frankly, I don’t expect Auster
to surpass this rich multilayered book—well, not unless he gets three more lifetimes
to work his magic.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His
most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: May 15, 2018
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conceptual fiction
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Auster once cited an
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haig, Matt
The Humans

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morris, Jan

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

North, Claire
The First 15 Lives of Harry August

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Weir, Andy
The Martian

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

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Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
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Ted Gioia on Twitter


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The Millions
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The Misread City
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