Booker Aside (4 3 2 1)

Most of the Booker longlist novels are on the short side (250-320 pages), and since I hadn’t read any in advance of taking on this project, I am grateful for that.

Let’s face it, I was never going to real all 866 pages of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. But I was hoping to read a shorter novel’s worth, enough to get a flavor of the four branching timelines of Archie Ferguson’s life. I did not. Because I was bored.

I’ll say just a little about it, but here are two proper reviews if you’re interested: Tom Perrotta’s, which is positive, and Laura Miller’s, which is somewhat more critical and gets at some of why I am abandoning this 87 pages in (“Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings”).

4 3 2 1 is so long because it’s basically four novels, following different paths Ferguson’s life could take from the same family origins covered “according to family legend” in the first chapter. That’s an interesting concept, as is the fact that there’s some kernel of unchangeable Ferguson that survives on every forking path (he is always, for instance, some kind of writer). I don’t have anything against long novels, either–I’m a former Victorianist who would still list Middlemarch and Bleak House among my favorites–though I have less patience for them as I get older. So why not this?

Well for one, it was so slow to get started, with a longish chapter for each Ferguson, in order, helpfully numbered 1.1-1.4 then 2.1-2.4 etc. That is easy to follow, but it means that it takes a really long time to start to see how the differences matter, and what details might show up in different ways in different timelines. I couldn’t stick with it long enough to care. This novel also lacks the social scope or Eliot or Dickens. We are stuck with Ferguson, in New York or suburban New Jersey, on and on. The forking paths don’t fork enough.

And the details! On paper I don’t mind exposition or details of banal daily life, but a lot of this banality went on way longer than I could stand. Why are you telling me this? I kept asking. And often the answer seemed to be just, Well, that’s what happened.

I can see why people would be impressed with this novel, and its core it gets at something about why we read fiction: we can only live one life, only take one fork in the road, and stories allow us to imagine and experience other lives. Ferguson’s lives weren’t ones I wanted to spend so much time in, though.

(When I started this longlist project, I thought “I’ll just read a few that sound interesting,” but then my perfectionism took over and I ordered or library-requested all 13. I think I’m just writing this post to give myself permission to move on from a book I have no hope of finishing in time anyway.)



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4 Responses to Booker Aside (4 3 2 1)

  1. Sunita says:

    I think you definitely get to move on from this. I’m sort of intrigued but sort of not, for all the reasons you give. I have Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life on the shelf, and that version of multiple lives sounds more interesting to me. But the chapter I read of the Auster definitely appealed in terms of the writing style. I think it’s more the substance, and as you point out, the nature of the details, that has me hesitating. I think I’ll try and get through the other ones I know I want to read before going back.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think if it hadn’t been so long, or I hadn’t felt that I was under time pressure, I might have enjoyed what I read more. As it was, I kept thinking “This had BETTER be worth it!” and what book can live up to that? Even the best reviews suggest that parts drag, though.

  2. Moving on from a book is never not fine. I give up on books all the time, and the nice thing about it is that I’m never precluded from giving that book another try if I want to do that at some later time! The book world is infinite and who knows when some blogger or review outlet will make me want to try that same book again! Give up this book! It sounds awful!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have gotten pretty good at moving on, especially as I get older–but if I’ve made something feel like homework, it’s hard for me to let myself “fail.”

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