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American activist Mark Rudd, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), addresses students at Columbia University, May 3, 1968. Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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4 3 2 1: A Novel by Paul Auster

The late 1960s and all their Jewish rebelliousness, in an ‘energetic’ fiction full of alternate realities

Paul Berman
February 17, 2017
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American activist Mark Rudd, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), addresses students at Columbia University, May 3, 1968. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Paul Auster’s digitally-titled 4 3 2 1 recounts the childhood and 1960s coming-of-age of a literary-minded New Jersey Jewish boy—and, as befits a countdown, the novel’s most striking and appealing trait is a feeling of onrushing momentum, which is a necessary trait, too, given that 4 3 2 1 goes on for nearly 900 pages. The tone of the book is normally relaxed and conversational, sometimes chatty. And yet, a discipline governs the prose rhythms and drives the sentences forward, one sentence spilling into the next. Sometimes, with engines racing, the simple and straightforward sentences gracefully lift off the runway and go gliding about in midair, no longer simple and no longer held down by the ordinary rules of grammar, but frisky and sinuous, sentences that speak in one person’s voice, and then in someone else’s, and glide about some more, and come down for a landing maybe a page-and-a-half later, and, still energetic, spill forward yet again.

Here is an example, selected almost at random, describing Auster’s hero, Archie Ferguson—whose curious name (for a Jewish kid) reflects the Ellis Island misadventures of his Yiddish-speaking immigrant grandfather. The boy has to decide how to get from Maplewood, New Jersey, to Manhattan: by bus, or by train and ferry?

Ferguson preferred the train-ferry solution, not only because he could walk to the station in about ten minutes (whereas going to the depot in Irvington required someone to give him a lift) but because he loved the train, which was one of the oldest trains still in use anywhere in America, with cars that had been built in 1908, dark green metal hulks that evoked the early days of the industrial revolution, and inside the car the antiquated wicker seats and the seat backs that could be flipped in either direction, the low-speed anti-express that rattled and lurched and sang forth a ruckus of screams as the wheels churned over the rusty tracks, such happiness to be sitting in one of those cars alone, looking out the window at the gruesome, deteriorating landscape of northern New Jersey, the swamps and rivers and iron drawbridges against a background of crumbling brick buildings, remnants of the old capitalism, some of it still functioning, some of it in ruins, so ugly that Ferguson found it inspiring in the same way nineteenth-century poets had found inspiration from the ruins on Greek and Roman hills, and when he wasn’t looking out the window at the collapsed world around him he was reading his book of the moment instead

—now comes a list of great novelists—

and then standing on the deck of the ferry if the weather was anywhere close to decent, the wind in his face, the engine vibrating in the soles of his feet, the seagulls circling around him, such an ordinary trip when all was said and done, a trip made by thousands of commuters every morning from Monday to Friday, but this was Saturday, and to the fifteen-year-old Ferguson it was pure romance to be traveling toward lower Manhattan in this way, the best of all good things he could possibly be doing—not just leaving home behind but going to this, to all this.

—with all this meaning the joys of Manhattan, as revealed in the fragments and sentences to come.

A happiness sends those phrases forward—a joy in recounting the tiny details, and, then again, a joy in formulating the phrases, and still another joy in allowing the rhythm of the details and the rhythm of the phrases to go in and out of syncopation. Auster says it himself—“such happiness to be sitting in one of those cars”—which could just as well be the happiness of escaping the laws of syntactical gravity. It may be that, in literature, momentum and pleasure are nearly the same thing, and Auster’s prosodic ease and energy guarantee a certain kind of momentum.

His plot follows a different principle, though, which is the chief curiosity of the book. He has divided Ferguson into four different Fergusons, each of them the same young boy from the same family, but pursuing life in rotating chapters according to different turns of fate—such that, in one alternative, little Ferguson is killed by a falling tree at age 13; and, in another alternative, his father is killed in a fire and little Ferguson grows up alone with his mother; and, in still another alternative, his parents divorce and get remarried to other people, which brings the boy into a new environment; and, finally, his parents remain happily married and, in response to the Newark riot of 1967, move to Florida, which leaves little Ferguson sane and sound and pleasingly independent. Each set of circumstances generates its own Ferguson, as he comes of college age—a Ferguson who yearns in more-or-less happy adolescent frustration for girls, and a Ferguson who finds himself drifting in homosexual directions; a penniless Ferguson who attends Princeton on scholarship; a well-to-do Ferguson who attends Columbia in time for the big student strike of 1968; and still another Ferguson, preternaturally self-assured, who avoids college altogether and instead plunges into the bohemian life of Paris.

Auster displays a marvelous skill in spinning these variations. All of his Fergusons do seem to be the same young person, variously adapted. And the people who surround Ferguson likewise remain faithful to themselves in spite of the variation in their own circumstances. His mother’s boss’ granddaughter is a girl named Amy, who becomes Ferguson’s cousin by marriage, or his stepsister, or his pal, and goes to Barnard, or Brandeis, or the University of Wisconsin. And, under each new circumstance, Amy is recognizably the same girl, a little wiser and wittier and more mature than Ferguson, and a little unattainable; and various Fergusons fall in love with her, or ought to fall in love, or will eventually do so, in exactly the same slightly doomed and soppy way.

I wonder, though: What is the purpose of these alternative realities? The name of Jorge Luis Borges comes up in the course of Ferguson’s Princeton experience, which, together with the digital title, might suggest that Auster’s larger intention is to conjure the kind of icy mathematical universe that Borges conjures—the alternative universe whose evocation has always been the grand obsession of the literary avant-garde. But, apart from the title, nothing in 4 3 2 1 is icy or abstract or even mathematical. The alternative histories of Ferguson in childhood and adolescence do not suggest the existence of an alternative universe. Each of the alternative narrative strands seems to conform, instead, to the assumptions of a single-universe realist novel. I made my way through the book engrossed in each separate strand of the story, and repeatedly I was surprised and disappointed to be reminded that other strands pursue alternative versions—surprised because Auster’s warm and realist storytelling does not seem to cry out for a supernatural alternative, and disappointed because the alternative versions undermine the convincing quality of each separate version.

But mostly my disappointment lies in the storytelling itself. The passages on family history amount to a treacly Jewish-immigrant novel. The passages on Ferguson’s early childhood turn out to be relentlessly cloying. One chapter after another had me, as a faithful reader, sobbing or gasping at the final emotional or shocking note—only to discover, once I had turned the page to the next chapter, that I could no longer remember having sobbed or gasped. Ferguson and Amy are about to sleep together for the first time—except that, gasp, John Kennedy is assassinated!

And yet, Auster does keep his momentum going, and this is not merely through feats of rhythmic sentence construction. He paints Ferguson’s romances with Amy and other girls in strictly sentimental colors, and likewise the gay Ferguson’s romance with a gay expat in Paris. But he is good at conjuring sexual tensions—on two occasions with the young gay Ferguson on the brink of succumbing to a mutual desire with an older lesbian, in testimony to the knottiness of sex and the falsity of sexual categories. A 900-page novel had better produce an occasional scene of that sort, and it is only a pity that, on both occasions, the looked-for doubly-gay-therefore-straight coupling never occurs.

The best aspect of the book is Auster’s portrait of the cultural enthusiasms of those years in the version that is Ferguson’s. The phrase “How Laurel and Hardy saved my life” gets bandied about. Young Ferguson enthuses over the avant-garde filmmakers of the 1960s, and then again over the Marx Brothers, a grand cult object of the ’60s student avant-garde. He enthuses over Apollinaire and the French Surrealist poets, and over John O’Hara and the New York School of poets. He enthuses over classical music, over Bach and the struggle to find a home for the New York Philharmonic, and over Coltrane—without a word about rock music, which I find relieving to see.

He enthuses over Manhattan, or, at least, the idea of Manhattan, and, at the same time, he recoils from the stink and decay of Manhattan and from the misery of the Upper West Side in the ’60s. And he responds with enthusiasm to the rumors that come his way of the new left-wing movements of the time—rumors of the Freedom Riders and civil-rights workers in the South. The early phases of the anti-Vietnam War movement catch his attention—the street demonstrations in Manhattan in 1966 and ’67, at a moment when most of the rest of the country was united in support of the war. And, in conjuring all of this, Auster conjures, too, a forgotten class struggle of those years, which was surely the antecedent of the class struggle of our own era, namely, the antagonism of hipsters and squares—the people who think of themselves as the beginning of a better future versus the people who think of themselves as the representatives of a laudable past. Naturally, he captures this from a hipster standpoint, teenage version.

Ferguson takes a girl named Linda to see The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner at a Manhattan theater and sighs at once when she says, “And you, Archie, what makes you think New York is so much better than everywhere else when in fact it’s so disgusting?” She condemns the hero of the movie, which, he thinks, might make sense, and is insufferable, even so:

But she was arguing for expediency over valor, and he hated arguments of that sort, the practical approach to life, using the system to beat the system, playing by a set of broken rules because no other rules were in place, whereas those rules needed to be smashed and reinvented, and because Linda believed in the rules of their world, their little suburban world of getting ahead and moving up and settling into a good job and marrying someone who thought the way you did and mowing the lawn and driving a new car and paying your taxes and having 2.4 children and believing in nothing but the power of money, he understood how useless it would have been to prolong the discussion.

And all of this erupts into public conflict during the Columbia student uprising of 1968—the uprising that pits students like Ferguson (that is, Ferguson the Columbia student and apprentice journalist at the college newspaper; or else Ferguson the ex-Princeton student who has transferred to Brooklyn College and whose Barnard girlfriend, Amy, is a militant of Students for a Democratic Society) against the conservative students: “the horde of inexperienced ephebes and virgin wankers who had grown up in small provincial cities and suburban tract houses.”

Auster has a habit of writing about historical events with a few facts altered, which seems to me another pointless affectation of literary experimentation. By and large, though, his account of the uprising and the student scene is faithful unto the tiniest details, most of them (to which I can attest in my capacity as a militant SDSer from those days). Sometimes he faintly disguises his characters—e.g., the poet Ron Padgett, who appears under a slightly altered name as a leader of the literary aspect of the rebellion.

Other times he introduces characters under their real names—e.g., Robert Friedman, the editor of the college newspaper (who, half a century later, is a well-known editor in New York), or Hilton Obenzinger, poet and protester (who has written his own novel, Busy Dying, about the Columbia uprising). And he offers a portrait of the best-known of the student rebels, who was Mark Rudd, the chairman of SDS—Rudd, the nimble leader of the revolution, improvising like a jazz musician. “The longer the occupation of the buildings went on, the more impressed Ferguson was by how fluidly Rudd adapted to each new circumstance, by how quickly he could think on his feet, by his willingness to talk about alternative approaches to each crisis as it came up”—which, if I may add, is an accurate description. Then again, maybe Auster underestimates Rudd. Auster’s Ferguson allows that, after a while, his old friends at Columbia, the ultra-radicals, “went insane,” which he attributes to political frustration. But Rudd—the real-life Rudd—in a memoir from a few years ago, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, a moving book, defiant and remorseful, introduces into his own account of those insanities a dose of sulphur, which is missing from 4 3 2 1.

What Auster’s book does have is an epic quality, sometimes with a touch of grandeur, and this is not just because it goes on endlessly. The book is a portrait of the artist as a young man that also manages to be a portrait of a cultural era coming into being, with its snobberies and animosities and struggles and ideals—the era that is our own, which is the era that began to flower amid the rebellions of 1968.

This review first appeared in the Hanukkah issue of Tablet’s former print magazine.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.