Paul Auster's Novel Of Chance

According to a currently popular line of philosophy, a self is merely the sum of all the stories we tell about a particular human body. It’s an idea that resonates through the work of the writer Paul Auster, in whose fiction both selves and stories are precarious constructions, fascinating but unstable, more illusion than reality. In “4 3 2 1” (Holt), Auster’s first novel in seven years and, at eight hundred and sixty-six pages, the longest by far of any book he has published, a single man’s life unfolds along four narrative arcs, from birth to early adulthood. “Clearly you’ve read Borges by now,” the faculty adviser remarks to one of these iterations of Archie Ferguson, a character who, like most of Auster’s heroes, is fanatically bookish. “4 3 2 1” is indeed a doorstop of forking paths.

All four Archie Fergusons share the same origin story, one that has much in common with Auster’s: a paternal grandfather who arrives in the United States with a Jewish name, which gets converted to something more Gentile-friendly on Ellis Island; a family history marred by murder; an emotionally remote, entrepreneurial father; a childhood in suburban New Jersey, a place that Archie, in all his incarnations, comes to detest. Archie’s father, Stanley, at first adores his young bride, Rose, but as the novel’s four plots diverge after Archie’s birth, in 1947, the marriage survives in only one of them. Archie himself doesn’t make it past Chapter 2 in one version of his story, killed when lightning shears off a branch as the boy romps beneath the trees at summer camp.

Sudden death has been a preoccupation of Auster’s since his own summer-camp days. At the age of fourteen, while hiking during a storm, he was part of a line of boys crawling under barbed wire when lightning struck the fence, killing the boy in front of him. Chance, understandably, became a recurring theme in his fiction, and in “4 3 2 1” it contributes to the four distinct paths of Archie’s life. So, too, does character. In one story line, his father’s furniture store burns down, his father collects the insurance for it, and life goes on relatively undisturbed. In another, Stanley’s brother confesses that he’s run up big gambling debts that can be paid off only if Stanley allows an arsonist to burn down the store. Stanley waits in the building to thwart this plan but falls asleep and dies in the fire. In yet another, Stanley’s warehouse is burglarized, but he refuses to file an insurance claim, because he knows that an investigation will reveal that his other brother was behind the crime. In the fourth, Stanley ends up a rich man after ejecting both of his ne’er-do-well brothers from the business long before they can cause any serious trouble. As a result, one Archie—let’s call him the Manhattan variation—grows up fatherless, and clings fiercely to his mother when the two move to the city. The Montclair variation grows up in straitened circumstances but with an intact family. The Maplewood Archie lives in bourgeois affluence as his father becomes obsessed with money and his parents become increasingly estranged.

Auster’s novels tend to fall into two categories, Paris and New York, a division of tone, style, and ambition rather than of setting—paradoxically, some of his most Parisian fiction takes place in New York City. He remains best known for the three short novels that make up “The New York Trilogy”: exemplars of his Parisian mode, they were first published in the nineteen-eighties and are the foundation for a career far more celebrated in Europe than in his native land. Descended from Kafka by way of Camus and Beckett, these books are existential parables about the absurdity of the writer’s life, calling attention to their own artificiality and grafted onto the apparatus of hardboiled detective fiction. In “Ghosts,” a P.I. named Blue is hired to observe another man, named Black, through the window of a neighboring apartment. After more than a year of watching Black, Blue begins to suspect that it is he who has been the target all along:

He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by little begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book.

In his New York mode, Auster pays tribute to what Rose Ferguson thinks of as “dear, dirty, devouring New York, the capital of human faces, the horizontal Babel of human tongues.” The young characters in “4 3 2 1” worship the city as only Jersey kids can; it is a manic paradise, visible but just out of reach. In such novels as “The Brooklyn Follies” and “Sunset Park,” Auster’s evident intention is Dickensian. He packs the books with minor characters of assorted races and ages, and attempts to conjure up a jaunty urban cacophony.

That goal, however, is incompatible with Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings. His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue, and it’s not easy to celebrate a polyglot metropolis when you’re unaccustomed to letting characters speak for themselves. Whoever is telling the story—whoever is speaking, period—always sounds too much like Paul Auster. His prose, even when impassioned, has a bland, synthesized quality, and in his Parisian mode it has deliberately been boiled down to the bones; the ease with which this style can be translated contributes to his popularity overseas. In “4 3 2 1,” which is more of a New York novel despite the predictable metafictional twist at the end, his sentences come tumbling out in multiple clauses, mimicking the breathless rumination of his earnest, callow, fairly humorless and slightly stuffy protagonists:
The fundamental quest both before and after his new life began had always been a spiritual one, the dream of an enduring connection, a reciprocal love between compatible souls, souls endowed with bodies, of course, mercifully endowed with bodies, but the soul came first, would always come first, and in spite of his flirtations with Carol, Jane, Nancy, Susan, Mimi, Linda, and Connie, he soon learned that none of these girls possessed the soul he was looking for, and one by one he had lost interest in them and allowed them to disappear from his heart.
Auster’s medium isn’t really sentences or paragraphs or scenes but narrative, events shoehorned into a sequence that endows them with significance: Blue has been hired to watch Black, therefore Black must be doing something worth watching. The narration in Auster’s novels typically dominates every other element in a ferocious and doomed assertion that the world the book describes is not ruled by happenstance. Maybe that’s what all storytelling is meant to do: reassure its audience that a legible causality shapes our world and our lives. The main character in the first novel of “The New York Trilogy,” “City of Glass,” seeking comfort after the death of his child, loves mystery novels because the world of such fictions is “seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, however trivial, can bear a connection to the story’s outcome, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence.” Plots, especially the solution-hungry plots of detective stories, give meaning to the flotsam and jetsam of lived experience.

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