Auster's novel is never boring, but it can get confusing, especially at the beginning of the book — readers will likely find themselves flipping back ... Auster wisely chooses not to make Ferguson a Forrest Gump-type character, implausibly present for every significant historical moment. He also gives each iteration a subtle self-awareness about their parallel existences ... There aren't many authors who could pull an 880-page novel like this off, and it's a little surprising that Auster manages to do it so well. That's not because he's not a great writer, but he's never been known for his loquacity or long, flowing sentences before. But he's a gifted observer, and his writing is so energetic, he makes it work ... Occasionally, Auster goes on a little too long — the novel is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be...Nonetheless, it's a stunningly ambitious novel, and a pleasure to read. Auster's writing is joyful, even in the book's darkest moments, and never ponderous or showy ... Auster proves himself a master of navigating these worlds, and even though all might not happen for the best in any of them, it's an incredibly moving, true journey.
The new novel may sound like a high-concept, formally pyrotechnic book, yet Auster’s approach to his material is hardly out of the ordinary — he draws on his own life experience, tweaking details and outcomes as it suits him. The pleasures 4 3 2 1 offers are fairly traditional as well. As a time capsule of New York and New Jersey in the Fifties and Sixties, it is consistently engrossing ... Auster’s late writing has shown something of a mania for inventories and in 4 3 2 1 at times this tendency metastasizes into unwieldy historical checklists. But more often the surplus description is born of generosity and exuberance ... Auster’s tilt away from the stifling control of locked-room mysteries toward the hail-mary risks of interwoven shaggy-dog coming-of-age stories is rejuvenating. He returns to many of his old hobbyhorses in 4 3 2 1, but here they are restored from the level of abstract metaphor to their rightful place in the real world ... Though the book’s plots are by and large little more than scaffolding for Auster’s lavishly appointed memory theater, they’re still fairly lively ... These latter portions flag. This is perhaps symptomatic of all coming-of-age stories, which address the process of relinquishing cherished attachments; the arc they describe moves toward loss and isolation. But it’s especially true for an author as single-minded as Auster.
What makes 4?3?2?1 original and dauntingly complex is that Auster sets all four of his stories on parallel tracks and tells them more or less simultaneously ... The virtues of this unwieldy strategy take a while to announce themselves...Auster opts for a more leisurely and earthbound form of storytelling, taking a hundred pages to sketch the outlines of Ferguson’s alternate boyhoods ... The multiple love stories of Ferguson and Amy — sometimes consummated, sometimes thwarted — form the heart of the novel and bring the strengths of Auster’s peculiar narrative structure into sharp focus ... 4?3?2?1 is a very long novel — it’s actually four books in one, or at least three and a third — and like many gargantuan tomes, it loses steam and focus in the final stretch. In addition to the parade of forgettable post-Amy lovers, there’s too much textbook-style rehashing of the political turmoil of the ’60s...But despite these flaws, it’s impossible not to be impressed — and even a little awed — by what Auster has accomplished. 4?3?2?1 is a work of outsize ambition and remarkable craft, a monumental assemblage of competing and complementary fictions, a novel that contains multitudes.
This is not a roman à clef. Rather, Auster is after a multitiered examination of the implications of fate ... what’s most striking about the novel is the way its different narratives reflect, rather than diverge from, one another, what they share rather than what sets them apart ... 4321 is a long book, and it can meander through the details and detritus of a life — or quartet of lives. Still, what’s compelling always is its sense that the most important time exists within us, the time of memory and imagination, out of which identity is forged.
When I finished the novel, I had a thicket of John Nash–looking notes, a persistent twitch in my left eyelid, and little sense of whether I had just experienced a monumental work of art or a very long con ... The structure makes perfect sense once you get used to it, but the first few chapters open in ways that don’t immediately reveal we are being treated to four separate realities...Readers will acclimate, but that’s not to say they won’t need a crib sheet. The respective courses and outcomes of Ferguson’s lives are different, but they are arrived at by relatively minor variations on several geographic and familial themes, which invite mix-ups ... I think I really like this novel, but I had a variety of uncharitable thoughts when I was reading it ... Curiously, 4321 reminded me of nothing so much as another recent novel that is very long and very odd—Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a book I ended up disliking but which galloped you along in a similar way, so that you weren’t always sure why you were reading but (incorrectly) assumed were being led to some great reward ... Despite the sad things that happen, however, it did not move me—the way it is structured makes it more of a math problem, and I was too busy making charts to fall in love. As a formal exercise, it’s impeccable, each life weighing as much as the other despite the accidents that shorten or prolong it. But when there are four possible versions of each life, how do you know which one to celebrate, and which to mourn?
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 ... Sprawling, repetitive, occasionally splendid, and just as often exasperating, 4 3 2 1 is never quite dull, but it comes too close to tedium too often; there is no good reason for this novel to be eight hundred and sixty-six pages long, or for every Archie’s love of baseball and movies and French poetry to be rhapsodized over, or for every major headline of the nineteen-fifties and sixties to come under review.
His thematic grammar remains intact, but he’s invented a new prose style. Gone is the short, Hammett-like line, and in its place are long twisty sentences that pile clause upon clause on joints of sinces, becauses, whens, whiles, whos, thats and whiches. There’s an ambition here that has a whiff of both 'Proust' and 'Nobel' ... The concept and its resulting structure is intriguing, but Auster has stacked the deck against himself. There’s a reason why long, encyclopedic novels have multiple sets of characters who may or may not know each other, multiple settings and disparate time frames: Variation helps hold the reader’s attention, the more drastic the better. The variations in 4321 are decidedly minor key ... These B-movie twists are entertaining to a point, less so is the lavish attention paid to the various Fergusons’ childhoods. (The book never truly achieves escape velocity into adulthood.)...Many passages sound like prolix outtakes of the voice-over to The Wonder Years ... what really defeats Auster in 4321 is his decision to write against his strengths. His B-movie plots and narrative sleights of hand thrive on elision, and this book is overstuffed. The one thing he always seemed to know was the power of brevity.
...both a wide-angled panorama of American life between 1947 and 1971 and a vastly magnified chamber-piece ... [the] crowning glory of Auster’s career ... Riddling and playful, Auster scatters these shards of autobiography among his band of parallel personae. Crucially, he also widens his reach and broadens his horizons. His trademark post-modern sorcery and irony coincide with full-throated, open-hearted social realism in a classic American vein ... 4321 fizzes with the sheer pleasure of a writer routinely praised or censured as a coterie puzzler, an existentialist dandy, showing that he can out-Roth, out-Updike and out-Franzen the greatest as a richly textured chronicler of modern America in flux, in transit and in crisis ... Does 4321 live up to this embedded manifesto? It does, and on a heroic scale. Like avant-garde composer John Cage (whom he quotes), Auster insists that 'The world is teeming: anything can happen.' In times of 'menace, despondency, and hatred,' the music of chance can be the sound of hope.
...in 4 3 2 1 he has taken up a new, expansive style, dominated by paragraph-length sentences that crash over the reader like waves, dousing us continually with new information, the sentences expanding to summarize an event instead of pausing to inhabit it, often extending into the future or the past...One either succumbs to this type of prose or doesn’t, just as some people are susceptible to hypnosis while others, confronted with a dangling amulet, simply laugh. 4 3 2 1 is a novel you can lose yourself in. It does not make heavy demands, except perhaps on your time, though a sympathetic reader will glide through it ... 4 3 2 1 is best when Auster does just that—when the ground beneath the reader’s feet is spongy, unstable. The novel sputters when it lingers over what Ferguson calls the 'things you already knew,' a category that includes not only the milestone historical events but the familiar coming-of-age plots and the reassuring opinions about politics and art ... Though 4 3 2 1 is not the most successful example of Auster’s project—it is too heavily weighted with the familiar, too stingy with the strange—it offers the clearest explication of his sensibility. Alternative realities have their uses, and for more than escapist fantasy. It takes a strong imagination to see the world as it isn’t. It takes an even stronger imagination to see the world as it is.
It’s almost as though it’s been written by some other writer. The Other Auster of 4 3 2 1 is a wry authorial presence but not a particularly interesting one ... This is a novel that accumulates small incidents rather than tells the story of some Big Event ... The book is not badly written, per se, and Auster crams so much material and action in that one can’t help but be propelled along. But even the most devoted Auster fan, the sort of reader who enjoys the struggle of keeping track in a book like this, seems very likely to lose the thread. It’s not hard to keep track of which Ferguson you’re talking about, but it’s hard to know why we must learn so much about each particular Ferguson ... There isn’t enough ambition in the narrative message to justify the page length, and all along I thought to myself: Auster is smarter than this. He’s proven it before...But one leaves 4 3 2 1 feeling tricked. The reader goes into the book believing he’s getting some serious Auster, and comes out the other end with a joke.
...a bona fide epic that manages to be both accessible and formally daring ... This book contains some of the most perceptive writing of Auster's career. His multipart narrative gives him ample room to explore the vagaries of identity and, as he put it an earlier book, 'the music of chance.' But 4321 can also be frustrating. There are extended set pieces that would've been just as effective at half the length and lots of stream-of-consciousness sentences that, at 200 and 300 words long, will try the patience of even the most assiduous reader. Auster, though, works hard to place his characters within the context of their times, and his efforts are almost always successful.
Though there are echoes of Auster’s life throughout the text, the sheer weight of historical detail acts as a defence against solipsism. The cold war, the execution of the Rosenbergs, JFK, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam draft, the My Lai massacre, the Kent State shootings: here’s a novel as attentive to period detail as Philip Roth would be, or Richard Ford, or Jonathan Franzen. The new expansiveness is reflected in the sentences, which run on, fluent, self-delighting, reluctant to stop ... While reading, you’re immersed. But it’s hard to suppress a sense of missed opportunity. If Auster was going to invent four different lives, why make them so similar? ... The novel drags towards the end. The recounting of student protests at Columbia is disproportionately long. There’s too much propagandising on behalf of writing rather than allowing the writing itself do the work ... a novel that celebrates the liberal values of his generation – from love of art to concern for justice – at a time when they’re under siege. Ferguson may be stuck in a bubble. But better a bubble than a wall.
With echoes of The Adventures of Augie March and American Pastoral, it is a vast, sprawling American Jewish bildungsroman that draws the reader in from the very first sentence and does not let go until the very end ... Auster’s take on the legend of Ellis Island christenings is hilarious in itself, enough to make it impossible not to keep turning pages. However, it also announces the theme of contingency, a vision of identity as fluid and improvised, the consequence of happenstance ... Beyond its value as a meditation on contingency, 4321 is an absorbing, detailed account — four accounts! — of growing up in the decades following World War II ... Since any life has more than four forking paths, I emerged from a week immersed in this prodigious book eager for more.
Few authors are consistently great, and to judge Auster by the intermittent failure of his tricks is to forget his first and most significant gift: for storytelling. It’s present in fierce abundance in 4 3 2 1, his huge, absorbing, moving new novel, which, at nearly 900 pages and coming after a silence of seven years, feels like a bid to re-enter the first tier of American authors ... 4 3 2 1 is far too long, and its prose, though chatty and readable, is often amateurish. On the other hand, his company from line to line is a joy, and each of Archie’s four destinies, stories spilling across stories, is genuinely engaging ... Such novels have always had obvious faults, but they could also be magnificent. To me it felt weirdly moving to read this final artifact of the grand old male narcissism — one last time, four more times.
""When you begin 4 3 2 1, you may think you’ve entered the realm of Philip Roth, with its bookish, baseball- and basketball-loving protagonist growing up in the Weequahic section of Newark. But Mr. Auster has a clever twist in mind ... Your appreciation of 4 3 2 1 will depend on whether you savor the detail in long passages ... Fans of Mr. Auster’s straightforward style and frequent references to classical music, Russian and French novels, and classic works of art-house cinema, however, will find much to enjoy ... One’s destiny, Mr. Auster suggests, may be subject to gale-force winds, but, if you have enough luck, savvy and determination, you’ll eventually get where you want to go.""
...a book of nearly 900 pages, with minimal dialogue but long passages of narrative description, can be daunting. At times, moving from one version of Ferguson to another, readers may take a few pages to recall just where they are. But the narrative is well written, and overall, Auster uses Ferguson’s story to capture a time and an outlook on life that will speak strongly to Americans who shared the same experiences.
It’s a totally fascinating concept that Auster has utilized in 4 3 2 1, to be sure, but as I continued the story, finding different moments of where I was charmed, heartened, and even emotionally affected across Ferguson’s four lives, my mind kept going back to [the TV show 'Community'] and how this single 23-odd minute segment of television made far better use of the tool of diverging timelines than a book that stands at 880 pages ... If we set the premise of 4 3 2 1 aside, what's left is a collection of genuinely exciting and downright banal episodes in Ferguson’s lives ... The prose of 4 3 2 1 is functional, albeit generally uneven ... The question of whether I found a book to be worthwhile is gauging my desire, upon finishing it, to immediately flip back to the first page and relive the adventure all over again. 4 3 2 1 did not inspire this ritual.
...[a] magnificently conceived novel ... Auster’s spot-on depiction of boyhood friendships and the first blooms of love and intimacy with Amy are lovely and memorable. 4 3 2 1 is also a brilliant compendium of the tumultuous 1960s: the anti-war and civil-rights movements; political assassinations; and the film, music, literature and sports of the era ... Auster dazzles with descriptive gems too numerous to count ... the development and mingling of four versions of Archie Ferguson not only illuminate and enhance his character, it gives the storytelling the power of enchantment that sustains the reader through the length of the book.
Auster is nothing if not a clever writer, and 4321 is a wonderfully clever book. The Austerian hallmarks of intertextuality and metafiction are on show throughout ... But 4321 is much more than a piece of literary gamesmanship — though Auster’s detractors have often accused him of being capable of little more. It is a heartfelt and engaging piece of storytelling that unflinchingly explores the 20th century American experience in all its honour and ignominy. This is, without doubt, Auster’s magnum opus ... It is one of those rare instances in reading, when, for the briefest moment, everything seems to stop and reorder itself, a moment of true revelation, when the world — at least the world of the novel — makes sense, and one can’t help but admit they are in the presence of genius.
Auster's long sentences and meandering plots amount to a detailed landscape where readers with a penchant for what-ifs can spend more time with an endearing young man, his spirited crush, his charming mother, and the circle of father figures, teachers and friends who love him. All this lovability is in service of a particular metafictional end point, it turns out — and for readers who like taking the scenic route, getting taken for a ride will be worth it.
Given that each of the four threads could be a fully-conceived novel in its own right, the reader has quite a lot to keep track of here, though her work is lessened slightly when one of the Archies dies early in the novel and again, later, when another does. The fact that the threads contain so much similarity makes it a challenge to keep one straight from the next ... While the novel explores many of Auster’s usual themes—American history, the role of coincidence in our lives, money, the father/son relationship—ultimately this is a book about writing. Its fundamental question is 'How does the life affect the writing?' ... 4 3 2 1, at 800+ pages, is a long and challenging read. Set in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, 4 3 2 1 feels researched to a degree that can sometimes pull the narrative down where it should be propping it up ... 4 3 2 1 is a writer’s book, and much of the subject matter will likely only hit home with readers of that particular persuasion. On the other hand, the historical bent of the book is worthwhile for everyone. At once comforting, unsettling, and instructive given the political climate in this country at the moment, 4 3 2 1, as I said, makes the case for some degree of fate.