By Paul Auster
Lives You Could Have
Paul Auster explores in great detail the effects a change early on can make in a life. The subject is Archie Ferguson and the change is the burning down of his father’s appliance/furniture store. As Archie himself muses fifty or so pages in, “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now.” The last line is the theme of the novel, a “what if” game played on what is at once a small and large field, these being one man’s life through some turbulent times, the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s an interesting thought for the very reason it is unoriginal: nearly everybody wonders what if at some point. Few, however, flesh things out in the extravagant detail you’ll find in 4 3 2 1.
Auster groups Archie’s four possible lives into seven chapters, dividing each chapter into four parts, Archie’s four lives. This can make for some reading challenges. As you might imagine, once you’ve read through a full chapter you have to pick up the thread of Archie’s first life again. Auster thankfully puts in small markers at the start of each to help you orient yourself. Just a guess here, but he’s also anticipated that some readers after the first chapter will decide to simplify things on their own by reading each life straight through. Not a bad strategy for keeping everything straight as Auster cobbles on a coda at the very end which sorts out the real and imagined. The only proviso here: you’ll want to read them in order, that is life one first, etc.
Prepare yourself for lives in great detail. Few of us probably are as introspective as the four Archies, even as a small child, since he is quite a precocious fellow. Archie delves deeply and in detail into home life, all school levels, sports, current events (assassinations, wars, elections, poverty, white flight, etc.), and particularly love and relationships, his own, his parents’, grandparents’, and friends’. No wonder the novel clocks in at 866 pages.
However, because Auster writes deftly, the whole thing moves along at a fairly rapid pace. So, don’t be put off by the massive paragraphs and the long winding sentences. They may appear intimidating, but you’ll find yourself gliding along without much trouble.
Will you like the novel and will you be willing to spend a considerable amount of time with it? You will if the idea of “what if” intrigues you. You will probably pause from time to time to consider your own multiverses. You certainly will if the time periods interest you. Auster does a remarkable job of hitting all the high and low points, a memory jogger for older readers and an introduction to interesting times for younger readers. And, finally, if you click with the fellow who will be with you every minute of the trip, Archie. w/c