Paul Auster used to be a spare writer. Think about “The New York Trilogy,” the three novels of which (“City of Glass,” “Ghosts,” “The Locked Room”) don’t fill 500 pages combined, or his slim, magnificent debut, “The Invention of Solitude,” an impressionistic account of the author’s relationship with his dead father. To engage with these books, we must be willing to read between the lines. Yet somewhere around his 2005 novel, “The Brooklyn Follies,” Auster began to loosen his language, becoming discursive and accessible. The books that have followed, including the novel “Sunset Park” and the memoir “Winter Journal,” feel more digressive, as if, in entering them, we have also entered the back and forth of Auster’s mind. “Perhaps it is just as well,” he observes in “Winter Journal,” “to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.”
Auster’s new novel “4321” — his first in seven years — might take that observation as an epigraph. Its protagonist, Archie Ferguson, shares aspects of his creator’s biography. Don’t let that deceive you, however: This is not a roman à clef. Rather, Auster is after a multitiered examination of the implications of fate. “One person kissed,” Archie imagines, “another person punched, or else one person attending his mother’s funeral at eleven o’clock in the morning on June 10, 1857, and at the same moment on the same block in the same city, another person holding her newborn child in her arms for the first time, the sorrow of the one occurring simultaneously with the joy of the other, and unless you were God, who was presumably everywhere and could see everything that was happening at any given moment, no one could possibly know that those two events were taking place at the same time.”
To explicate this sense of random overlap, Auster gives us four parallel versions of Archie. Each pursues a passage all his own, although there are some striking continuities, beginning with a common ancestor: a grandfather who, when asked his name at Ellis Island, “blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”
That the story is apocryphal — “It was an old joke, apparently,” Auster acknowledges — is part of the point, for Archie is something of an Everyman. Born in the late 1940s, he comes of age in the 1960s, with the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam. Archie is an aesthete, although this means different things to different variants. In one story line, he is a fiction writer and in another a journalist. It’s a game to a certain extent, in which the structure of the book reminds us of its own conditionality, the mutability of narrative, the notion that stories, like lives, are only fixed when they are done.
Auster deepens this conceit by offering several clues, or reference points, to other famous novelists: Saul Bellow (the grandfather is described, Augie March-like, as “a broad-shouldered roustabout, a Hebrew giant with an absurd name and a pair of restless feet”), Philip Roth (parts of “4321” take place in his Weequahic section of Newark), and even Don DeLillo, whose account, at the start of “Underworld,” of the Giants-Dodgers 1951 playoff is echoed by a shorter riff on the 1954 World Series, in which Willie Mays made his legendary catch.
Were that all Auster had in mind, “4321” would be a pretty insular piece of work. What makes it more is his intention to trace the movements of Archie’s inner life. “To combine the strange with the familiar,” Auster writes about his character, “that was what Ferguson aspired to, to observe the world as closely as the most dedicated realist and yet to create a way of seeing the world through a different, slightly distorting lens.” The idea remains consistent across all four versions of his life. Indeed, 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. In every one, Archie interacts with a woman named Amy Schneiderman — by turns lover, stepsister or cousin, but always elusive and alluring in a related way. His father’s appliance business comes to a variety of fates, including arson, and yet it remains a presence across every one of the novel’s worlds.
For Auster, this is a signifier of both possibility and its limitations, a recognition that even within a set of divergent narratives, certain people, certain interactions, come together again and again. It’s not fate, exactly, or at least not in the way we commonly think of it, but more the understanding that we are constrained always by circumstance, by our parents, our communities; potential is not unlimited, in other words.
“Everyone had always told Ferguson,” Auster writes, “that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the hero died on page 204 or 926, but now that the future he had imagined for himself was changing, his understanding of time was changing as well.” The key word in that sentence is “imagined,” for this suggests, or so Auster means to tell us, where we truly live.
“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. Like everyone, Archie and his family must live in time, and die. But like everyone also, the measure of their existence is not necessarily what they leave behind but who they thought they were. “The word psyche means two things in Greek,” Archie’s aunt, a literature professor, tells him in one of the novel’s most trenchant passages. “Butterfly and soul. But when you stop and think about it carefully, butterfly and soul aren’t so different, after all.”
David L. Ulin, the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.”
On Feb. 1 at 7 p.m., Paul Auster will be at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600
I St. NW. For tickets and more information, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919 or visit politics-prose.com.
By Paul Auster
Henry Holt. 866 pp. $32.50