The basic concept behind this narrative is an interesting one, not unlike Life After Life ( Kate Atkinson) except that the alternative lives are parallel rather than sequential. There is a wealth of historical detail of American history during the 1960s- Vietnam War, Race Riots- but the main character is not totally endearing, because of his self-indulgent recall of detail which becomes tedious. An interesting concept but the book was far too long..
4321 is an immense book. Immense in length (the paperback is 1070 pages) and immense in ambition. Ambition that has been fully realised. All the more pleasant a surprise as I have never read Paul Auster before.
We meet Archibald Ferguson, four times over. But first, we have a story of his grandfather, coming to America with an unpronounceable Jewish name, failing to tell the immigration man that their name is Rockefeller.
So on to Archibald - or Ferguson - as he is known in each version. There are four alternative versions, all similar but with key life events unfolding in four different ways. We have rich Ferguson, poor Ferguson, gay Ferguson and intellectual Ferguson (not necessarily in that order), influenced by events both in and outwith his control, but always with a talent for baseball and a passion for writing. We see formative life in New Jersey/New York in the 1950s through four slightly different eyes. We see the growing liberalism of the 1960s and the emergence of the Vietnam war. Each of these different perspectives, broadly similar but slightly askew, serve to give extremely sharp focus. There are moments of high drama, moments of tragedy. There's a lot of love and heaps of sadness. Some events come as surprises, others are telegraphed dozens of pages ahead.
The novel is long - it took me over 3 weeks to finish - but it is very readable. The language is accessible, the story lines are transparent. The structure of the novel is that seven periods of time are covered, taking each version of Ferguson in turn. Each section is long enough to become fully immersed in the story, but also long enough that it takes a while to reacclimatise to a previous story line when it cycles back. Happily, Paul Auster puts in plenty of reminders/recaps to help the reader. This is not a novel where the author tries to show how brilliant he is - it is a reader's book that the reader will recognise as brilliant on its own merits.
The ending - the last few pages of this beast of a book - make sense of the whole exercise. It is a truly devastating ending that will leave an already exhausted reader fighting for emotional survival. It is clever; it is memorable.
The sheer length of this book and the density of the print will deter purchasers. And once purchased, the book may spend some time sitting on a shelf waiting for the perfect moment that a reader is willing to commit a month to Project 4321. But when that moment comes, seize it!