One of the iconic figures of New York's literary scene, Paul Auster, has defined the city and written about it over several decades, from his The New York Trilogy, published in the 1980s, to Sunset Park, set in the depths of Brooklyn, in 2010. His latest novel, 4 3 2 1, returns to the city again, its hero travelling back and forth between New York and New Jersey.
At nearly 900 pages, it's a doorstopper of a book, bringing together four stories in one. Each tells the tale of the same boy, Archie Ferguson, whom life takes in diverging directions. The account begins with the arrival from Minsk of Ferguson's grandfather at New York Harbour and moves swiftly on to his parents towards Ferguson's own childhood and fraught adolescence.
Most of the events occur during the 1960s, which allows Auster to replay a catalogue of events familiar to the American psyche: Kennedy's joyful election and then assassination; the rise of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; the war in Vietnam. Born in a halcyon era, Archie Ferguson is destined to relive its central moments - the triumphs and disappointments of America's golden age.
Auster's decision to explore four versions of the same character's life raises a host of intricate and philosophical questions. What early events are the most influential in determining a life's trajectory? What makes the difference between one person's success and another's failure? Might the death of a father lay the ground for a teenage son's delinquent behaviour (as one of the storylines suggests)? Or a frosty relationship with the same parent lead another boy to attend Princeton? In each version of his life, Ferguson is a writer, alternately a memoirist, journalist and an author of fiction. And the same characters thread through the novels in different roles: Amy, for instance, is Ferguson's lover and girlfriend in one; in another, his half-sister; in a third, she rejects him and he realises soon afterwards that he is bisexual.
But 4 3 2 1 doesn't deliver on its promise, and while it's a readable book, it's not a great one. Ferguson, a relatively ordinary fellow, lives the privileged life of the American elite. His character flits across the literary scenes of New York and Paris, Columbia or Princeton, supported by loving family and friends who believe steadfastly in his talent and abilities.
In one strand, a wealthy patron puts him up for months in her Paris apartment and sends his memoir to her literary friends in London, leading to swift publication. (Incidentally, when it comes to visiting Europe, Paris is the only place to be. England and Ireland are "dank, wet-weather" countries where he couldn't imagine being happy) Sometimes it seems as though Ferguson's greatest worry is how to get a girlfriend or boyfriend. Perhaps his easy success is because the novel is set during America's boomer era, but it's hard to feel sympathy for a kid whose struggles are so few.
Money is a theme that recurs through 4 3 2 1, a relevant topic for a young man choosing to embark on a career as a penniless artist. But in all four strands of the tale, that problem is conveniently resolved, either through parental deaths and bequests, or the simple fact that "some of the penniless writers from lower Manhattan had figured out where the pennies were". In a rather comical moment, Ferguson, who had been using his grandfather's apartment as a private venue for his sexual encounters, walks in on the old man overseeing a porn set. The 18-year-old pompously tells the actors - a bleached-blonde "dead-eyed woman of about 30" and her colleagues - to scram, with the words, "I'm sorry… but the fun is over for today. Put on your clothes and get out". His grandfather is so ashamed that he offers the boy $10,000 (the equivalent of about $75,000 today) to keep quiet.
As this scene indicates, Auster has an unfortunate way with words when it comes to depicting women. Although the book is peppered with strong, intelligent female characters, Ferguson only falls in love with those who are slim and blonde. After one of his break-ups, a lonely Ferguson begins an affair with a bright, companionable fellow journalist, Nancy. She's "a bit on the heavy side, perhaps, but sexy enough to make Ferguson long for her body whenever they were apart for more than a week or 10 days". Later, we are told, he pursued two different women, "who were not worth the effort of pursuing and shall remain nameless because they are not worth the effort of naming".
4 3 2 1 is a cleverly conceived novel about versions of a character, "Identical but different, meaning four boys with the same parents, the same bodies, and the same genetic material, but each one living in a different town with his own set of circumstances".
And a self-referential twist lies in wait for the reader towards the end. But still Auster can't resist hinting at too much and revealing too much. He writes with a broad brush that doesn't leave the reader guessing.