Paul Auster has prospered from the romance of being both a New York author and a cultural insider. He’s a metafictional trickster, a handsome, somewhat enigmatic cool dude of the book, and in the latter portion of his career, one half of America’s most prominent literary power couples. Having set out as a poet and a translator of French poetry, he came to fame first with his abstracted detective fiction, a collection of three novellas collectively published as The New York Trilogy. Spare yet evocative, it set a template for a kind of self-conscious fictional play that has been the organising principle for a number of his later novels: The Book of Illusions, The Music of Chance, Travels in the Scriptorium, Man in the Dark and Oracle Nights.
Many of his early novels, however, are a version of the bildungsroman and follow the struggles of a young person trying to survive and find meaning in adverse, often fantastical circumstances: Moon Palace, In the Country of Last Things and Mr Vertigo. In Moon Palace, for instance, Marcus Fogg embarks on a quest that begins in New York. He falls in love with the wonderful Kitty Wu and works for the magnificently maverick Thomas Effing, before travelling into the desert to discover himself and his father, who turns out to be Effing’s long-lost son. In the Country of Last Things, a young woman goes to an unknown land in an attempt to rescue a friend and learns to negotiate the eclectic perils of a dystopia organised on the principle of disappearance. In Mr Vertigo a young boy, Walter Claireborne Rawley, is taken under the harsh tutelage of the Master Yehudi and suffers many indignities and adventures in the process of the learning to fly and thus becoming a Harry Houdini-style celebrity. In all these novels the fantastic and the bildungsroman are combined and the combinations impart a wonderful quality of mischief, jeopardy and invention.
In the first of his three memoirs, The Invention of Solitude Auster muses on the absence of his father and on his own challenges in being a father to his son, Daniel, the child from his first marriage to flash fiction pioneer Lydia Davis. Fathers and the absence of them are a theme in his fictions too. Moon Palace is a quest to find a missing father, while many of Auster’s other novels feature a series of eccentric avuncular figures who operate as father substitutes against the backdrop of the bildungsroman.
The bildungsroman as a genre has a tendency towards earnestness but in Auster’s oeuvre it collides with the particular strand of the novel that emanates from Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It’s a tradition of epistemological uncertainty in which the novel is aware of itself and knows it is not to be trusted, and is less concerned with the challenges of verisimilitude than with the pleasures (and folly) of what is untruth.
Auster has been criticised for deliberate tricksiness in his novels, for his play with metafiction. The novelist Jenny Diski, in a Guardian review of his 2008 dystopian novel, Man in the Dark, wrote:
Brill is in his seventies and suffering the results of a car accident. Being a critic rather than a novelist, he might be forgiven for daydreaming a cliche in the privacy of his bed, but I’m not sure that Auster can be excused so easily. ‘You’re saying it’s a story, that a man is writing a story, and we’re all part of it,’ says Brick, in case we haven’t got it. Pirandello’s six characters were wandering around looking for their author in 1921; Barthes declared the death of the author in 1967; Philip Dick mastered the ‘What is real?’ genre throughout the Sixties and Seventies; and Laurence Sterne was writing Tristram Shandy in 1759, for heaven’s sake. It doesn’t mean that the meta-fiction thing can’t ever be done again, but it does mean it has to be done remarkably well in order to justify it as more than a tired trope.
However, these tricks are as innately a part of the novel’s creative palette as social realism. They are not part of a teleology, as Diski implies, of breaking new technical ground. Metafictional games are intrinsic to the kind of novel Cervantes initiated. What they remind us is that novels are inherently manipulative, they mine their readers for affect. The realist novel to varying degrees is more covert in its manipulation of the reader; it is a salesperson playing the candour card. The Cervantes strand of the novel is more ambivalent towards this necessary manipulation, more intent on foregrounding the suspension of disbelief. In the manner of a shaggy dog story, it aims to capture the reader in that delicious double bind – I’m swallowing this at the same time as I know there’s no way that it is true.
This is very much the charm of Auster’s best work, the guileless prose style that seduces the reader into following his protagonists into outrageous yarns that are thrilling with their inventiveness. Like Don Quixote his best novels are shameless diversions. The tension between bildungsroman and sustained implausibility has proved productive in his work. It’s a tactic that has earned Auster acclaim and a dedicated readership, but also, particularly in his later career, critical opprobrium.
Auster’s latest and longest novel, 4321, uses a conspicuous and largely original metafictional frame. Essentially it’s a bildungsroman, based on the upbringing of Archie Ferguson, a third generation Jewish American who lives in New Jersey. The acquisition of the surname is the consequence of a joke. When Isaac Reznikoff, Archie’s grandfather arrives at Ellis Island from Minsk by way of Warsaw and Hamburg, the Immigration and Naturalisation Service officer asks him his name. Isaac to responds in Yiddish Ikh hob farghessen. It means, I have forgotten — presumably here he is talking about the fact that he has forgotten what the question means in English — which the official interprets as Ichabod Ferguson, and the name sticks.
Archie is born in in 1947 in New Jersey to Ichabod’s son, Stanley Ferguson and his wife Rose. Rose is the child of more assimilated Jewish parents, who arrived in the US when they were young children. Stanley runs a furniture appliance store; Rose is a photographer. Archie is an only child. But there is not just one Archie. There are four Archies whose lives digress along variegated event horizons from this communal origin, even if many of their situations are shared. The idea is classic Auster, a narrative puzzle that presents the reader with four bildungsroman, which are variations on a single character. It’s an intriguing idea that speaks to our innate interest in the lives we all might have lived had our chances and decisions been different. Unfortunately, however, 4321 is over-burdened by detail and Auster’s lapse from the fantastic in favour of a narrated realism does not serve the cleverness of this ploy well.
The chapters are chronologically ordered, beginning with the family’s arrival in America. The chapters are organised around events in Archie’s life such as going to college. Once he is born, each Archie gets a go at every period, marked by the chapter headings 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1 and so on: the first number marks the period covered and the second which of the Archies is being written about. When each of the Archies has experienced that phase of life, the novel moves onto the next. When one of the Archies dies his part in the next sequence of life is marked with the appropriate numbers on an otherwise blank page.
Auster has always been primarily interested in narrative and stretching the limits of its contingencies. Even in his most abstracted works such as the New York Trilogy, it is narrative rather than style, or character around which the work is formed. His writing process has been one of the gradual accretion of detail from first drafts that are thinly fleshed plot skeletons. They have the linearity of the typewriter rather than the circularity of the word processor. This career-long interest in narrative can be read as a development from the young Auster’s relatively early turn away from poetry (his poetry is dense and often tensely static) as if his poetry had butted up against the Beckettian silence and narrative was the solution. However, it is crucial too to his great thematic obsession – the role of chance in our lives: who gets to live, who becomes successful, how what looks like defeat might be the genesis of a later, greater bounty. Auster himself has often traced this interest in chance back to a seminal moment in his own childhood, when as an 11-year-old at summer camp a friend was struck by lightning and killed in the nascent author’s near vicinity. This moment is multiply reprised in 4321. One of the Archies meets his own end in a similar fashion. For another Archie, it is a new friend he has met at the summer who is killed.
The novel is a dizzying sequence of such alternatives and it is difficult to keep each Archie Ferguson separate in the mind. This is both the attraction of the novel and the reason why it is ultimately a failure. There are moments when you feel the fractioned subjectivities of the Archies simultaneously, with each Archie throwing into question the existence of his others. But too often the effect is one of sheer confusion. Too often the Archies coalesce in the reader’s mind and it’s a difficult business keeping them separate.
Here’s what we’re dealing with: in one story, the furniture store owned by Archie’s father Stanley burns down and his father collects the insurance. Another has Stanley’s brother arranging for an arsonist to burn the store down so he can claim the insurance to service his gambling debts. Stanley is determined this should not happen. He waits in the store for the arsonist with the intention of thwarting him, but falls asleep and is killed when the arsonist carries out the task. In the third version the warehouse is robbed but Stanley refuses to claim for the insurance because he knows an investigation will reveal that his other brother was behind the crime. In the fourth version Stanley is able to neutralise his ne’er-do-well brothers before they do him or his business any harm.
So, in one version Archie grows up fatherless, in another version he grows up with a family, but the finances are tight, in a third version he grows up in wealthy circumstances but his parents become estranged and divorce. The rich Stanley turns out to be something of a tightwad and Archie becomes estranged from him. In the remaining version Archie is denied the opportunity to grow up. Auster plays similar games with a number of the characters and events in the novel. The Archies all fall for a girl called Amy Schneiderman, who depending on the story is his girlfriend, stepsister, or, both. Only one of the Archies survives and in a typically Auster frame twist, he becomes the author, who writes the stories of the other Archies, all of whom by the end of the novel are dead.
As the story progresses and details accrue it gets harder and harder to keep the plotting of the Archies’ lives separate. Is it the Archie whose father dies who ends up going to Columbia, or is that the one who wins the scholarship to Princeton? It might be possible — but probably not without keeping notes — and the stories, while charming in parts, do not really warrant the effort. One of the reasons for the confusion is the tightness of the events through which the diverging destinies of the various Fergusons are channelled. Given Auster’s interest in the mechanisms of chance and outrageous plot lines, it’s puzzling that the Archies don’t diverge further in their interests. Except for the Archie struck by lightning they all become become writers. Surely here Auster is closing off their chances. Even if one of these young writers is a journalist when he dies, not a novelist, why didn’t one Ferguson follow his mother into photography? Or go off to join Don Draper on Madison Avenue. Or join a rock band? Why didn’t one play safe and become a lawyer? Why do two of them end up in Paris? Why doesn’t one end up smoking dope on a kibbutz? Blown up in the jungles of Vietnam? One of the Archies does differ in sexual orientation from the others but the paths they follow are very similar, such that their trajectories feel as if they are afflicted by a poverty of imagination. The most egregious example of this is the fact that by the end of the book, only one of the four Archies, the Archie who authors the other Archies, is still alive: the rest have been killed off by Auster before their thirtieth birthdays, which is convenient but hardly likely.
The temptation is to view the Archies as variations on a theme of Paul Auster, also born in 1947 in New Jersey, Paul Auster whose father owned an appliance store, Paul Auster who became a writer, who went to Columbia, who spent time in Paris. In an interview with Robert Siegel Auster touches on his relationship to the four Archies:
SIEGEL: Like Archie Ferguson, you were born in New Jersey in 1947…
AUSTER: True enough.
SIEGEL: …To a middle-class, Jewish family.
AUSTER: True enough.
SIEGEL: Like all the Archies, books and writing matter a lot to you. And like more than one of them, Paris is some place special to you. Is 4321 a kind of fractured mirror that reflects different versions of Paul Auster?
AUSTER: It’s really not me at all, even though the interest of the Fergusons seemed to overlap with mine. I think of this book as sharing my geography and sharing my chronology, but it’s really not at all my story. These Fergusons are so much more precocious than I was. They seem able to do things at astonishingly young ages that I was not capable of doing, for example.
The surviving Archie is the one who attends Columbia, who witnesses his friend die at summer camp and who ends up in Paris writing about the other Archies at the end of the book. All of these events mirror Auster’s own biography. The whimsical interpolation of the author has long been a kind of mischief in Auster’s novels: as a play with Barthes’ notion of the death of the author, the author is frequently resurrected in his stories, for instance as a private eye in the New York Trilogy. Auster has also written three works of memoir. In his second volume of memoir Winter Journal, the first of two late-career memoirs after the brilliant Invention of Solitude he contends that ‘We are all aliens to ourselves, and if we have any sense of who we are, it is only because we live inside the eyes of others.’ Is Auster’s fiction then a series of mirrors through which the author is wryly in impossible pursuit of himself? 4321 as a narrative device partly resembles a hall of mirrors conceptualised as the trajectory of possible selves. It might be argued that there is a fine line between self-referential metafictional mischief and refracted narcissism, but this is not the novel’s primary problem. That lies in the outward exploring , in the sheer detail of Auster’s at times almost artless rendering of the geography and chronology he shares with Archie and how it weighs his clever concept down.
In 2009 James Wood wrote an epic takedown of Auster:
. . . Auster is a peculiar kind of postmodernist. Or is he a postmodernist at all? Eighty per cent of a typical Auster novel proceeds in a manner indistinguishable from American realism; the remaining twenty per cent does a kind of postmodern surgery on the eighty per cent, often casting doubt on the veracity of the plot.
For Wood, a critic with canonising tendencies, Auster is a lightweight. Yet this appraisal ignores the fact that Auster’s lightness has always been a crucial part of his charm. Wood hasn’t quite got the realism postmodernism dichotomy quite right either. As I have argued above there is a generative tension that comes from placing a realism-inclined genre such as the bildungsroman into metafictional frames. Wood also seems largely to have missed Auster’s dry sense of humour, a humour based largely in the mechanisms of his plots. Concluding his essay Wood argues:
The classic formulations of postmodernism, by philosophers and theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Ihab Hassan, emphasize the way that contemporary language abuts silence. For Blanchot, as indeed for Beckett, language is always announcing its invalidity. Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void. Perhaps the strangest element of Auster’s reputation as an American postmodernist is that his language never registers this kind of absence at the level of the sentence. The void is all too speakable in Auster’s work. The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year, as tidy and punctual as postage stamps, and the applauding reviewers line up like eager stamp collectors to get the latest issue.
As with Diski, Wood has fallen into the false teleology of the postmodern novel as an avant-garde critique of the fictional bedrock of realism, where the model for Auster remains the ever-playful Cervantes. The silence and skepticism towards language Wood identifies as a hallmark of the postmodern novel and one that he accuses Auster of talking over is not really an issue in Auster’s work, which is based more around concepts of narrative play. Again he is judging Auster by the philosophical hallmarks of earnest post-structuralism, the anxiety of silence, the moral quandary of fractured social meaning, rather than an older, more ludic artistic tradition that is better conceptualized through concepts such as Bakhtin’s carnivalesque.
Wood does however identify the importance of a balance between realism and non-realism in Auster’s work, even if he defines it in the wrong way. It is here where 4321 falls over most conspicuously and it is tempting to wonder whether Auster, wittingly or otherwise, in conceiving this project has taken some of Wood’s criticism to heart. It’s a monster of a book, and were it not for its multiple Archies, it’s almost entirely written in a realist mode. So realist is it at times that it reads as though it was history or reportage. Here is one of the worst examples:
At that early stage of the drama, SDS was focusing its activities on two principle issues: the Institute for Defense Analyses and the ban against demonstrating and/or picketing inside university buildings, a new policy that had been initiated by President Grayson Kirk back in the fall. IDA had been set up by the Pentagon in 1956 as a conduit for enlisting the help of university scientists in weapons research for the government, but no one had been aware of Columbia’s connection to the program until 1967, when two members of SDS found documents in the library stacks that referred to Columbia’s membership in Ida, which had twelve university members in all, and now that the faculties committees at Princeton and Stanford were recommending to the heads of their schools that they quit the program, students and faculty members at Columbia were asking their university to do the same, even though Kirk had been a member of the board for the past nine years, but how not to feel revulsion over the fact that IDA research had led to the development of chemical herbicides such as Agent Orange, which was being used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam or that the bloody target of “carpet bombing” was the result of IDA counterinsurgency techniques?
While all this information might be laudable in a work of historical non-fiction the frequency of chunks such as these, as well as Auster’s ‘telling’ style of narration mean that despite being fourfold, Archie is often on the periphery of his own story in 4321. And since this reach for such a thickly detailed conjuring of the past invades the rendition of all four Archies the reader is entitled to be confused. Furthermore, there is no tension in the narrative. It is interesting to see how the various lives of the Archies play out, but we are never on the edge of our reading chairs wondering what might happen next, and we are rarely surprised when it does.
The question is why has Auster, a writer whose talent is to a considerable extent one of poise, gone and done this. The easiest answer is perhaps that he is one of those authors who has become too famous to be edited, but who has lost perspective on his own work. It’s quite possible too that we have already seen the best of Auster and that his longest novel, ironically, is a sign that he is running out of creative gas. And while it’s certainly true that there is a lot of padding in this novel that strong editing may have resolved, there are other reasons worth considering as to why Auster has over-balanced his story so heavily in favour of historical facts.
In his scathing review of 4321 in the London Review of Books, ‘Gloriously Fucked’ J. Robert Lennon writes,
This is an unabashed tale of baby-boomer exceptionalism, carefully crafted to shine the most flattering possible light on its characters, who are always on the right side of history, politics, social justice and art. Ferguson is always reading the books and watching the films the future will judge to have been the very best, and Auster doesn’t hesitate to list them, and sometimes summarise them, for pages on end.
Lennon’s contention is close to the mark. As he nears the end of his career, Auster has begun to think overly of his own posterity and this has affected the quality of his writing. There are clues to this: the recent penchant for memoir, neither of which touches upon the quality of The Invention of Solitude. It might be argued that in 4321, whether or not as a reaction to the kind of criticism leveled against his work by Wood, Auster has made a late reach for the Great American Novel, for the kind of broad sweep American novel that we find in the work of his friend and rival Don De Lillo and also in that of Phillip Roth. Is Archie Auster’s attempt to come up with, on his own terms, a character that bludgeons the reader in the same way as Philip Roth’s Swede in American Pastoral. Or an attempt to play for the kind of serious writer aura that Jonathan Franzen has created around his literary effort.
Only such gambits don’t suit Auster and in 4321 he shows that he doesn’t have quite the right toolkit to pull this kind of thing off. The problem with his reach for posterity is that it is heavy, where his best work (and his work, especially his later work is uneven) always has a kind of lightness even when dealing with difficult issues. It’s this deftness that Wood erroneously conflates with being ‘slightly facile.’ Problems arise when you lose not just the lightness, but also the edge that comes from the inbuilt Cervantian skepticism towards the novel, something that drives not only the narratives of Auster’s novels but his characters. Auster’s attempt to borrow from the chronology and geography of his own life to create a masterful multi-noded bildungsroman is an interesting idea, but 4321 is ultimately far too long-winded and sententious for that idea to properly work.