Art & Lit

An Experiment of Life: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

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We all have moments in our lives when we wonder: what could I have been, should this or that had changed? Not the big, unleash-your-wildest-fantasy-kind of change, but something slight enough to change your life in its entirety yet big enough to make some traceable differences. After all, life is but our own making – every decision, every thought, every whim, however insignificant it may seem then, makes us who we are and who we will be. What if one detail could change? What if it had changed? How different would you become, compared to this current version of you?

Paul Auster clearly was thinking about these questions and weighing them in his heart when he wrote 4 3 2 1, the long-awaited novel of the acclaimed, New York-based author that has just been launched earlier this year. Divided into four parts, the novel is essentially an ‘experiment’ of life in the sense that, Archie Ferguson, the novel’s young protagonist, is given the privilege of altering some elements of his life while the general condition (e.g. social and historic background, family members) remain unchanged. As a result, Archie has gradually grown into four different versions, albeit always the same origin and (almost) the same personal interests. Some Archies grow up in a rich family, some poor; one always with his father around, another fatherless; one lives in Manhattan, others in Maplewood, in Montclair, in New Jersey. Each Archie is different enough to be counted as an independent life, yet close enough to be read as unmistakably the same person. More intriguingly, the four lives are not told separately in the novel’s four parts, but mingled together. In one chapter, for instance, Auster tells one version of the store of Archie’s father is accidentally burned down, only to be immediately followed by a more dramatized, more elaborate version of the same story, resulting in one Archie’s fatherlessness. Thus structured, the four lives are closely tied together, making it easy for the readers to compare each different version.

Divided into four parts, the novel is essentially an ‘experiment’ of life in the sense that, Archie Ferguson, the novel’s young protagonist, is given the privilege of altering some elements of his life while the general condition (e.g. social and historic background, family members) remain unchanged.

What else binds the four Archies together are the characters – major or minor – that cross their paths with Archie. The recurring names and faces not only give the readers a sense of familiarity, but also reminds us that, as Archie’s life differs, so do the lives of those around him. The social and historical background shared by all the Archies is also one of the greatest charms of the novel, and is something that is not strongly felt in Auster’s previous works. All the Archies live through (or do not manage to live through) the same series events and, as their storylines depart from each other, their roles and destinies, too. In the process, the number of the Archies is gradually to one – the last Archie that survives to tell his tales. The choice of the title is thus explained, and the story comes to its completion as if were a circle: it starts with the birth of one Archie, branches into four, but eventually ends with one Archie standing.

All the Archies live through (or do not manage to live through) the same series events and, as their storylines depart from each other, their roles and destinies, too. In the process, the number of the Archies is gradually to one – the last Archie that survives to tell his tales.

It is noteworthy that Archie’s life also overlaps with Auster’s. Grown up in the same locations and the same time period, the Archies’ many personal experiences are derived from the author himself. Inaugurating the Oxford Literary Festival in March, Auster shared with the audience the stories of his grandfather’s suspicious death and the boy being struck dead by lightening when crawling in front of him in a queue under a fence. These autobiographical details certainly shorten the distance between the characters, the author, and the readers, but they make it hard not to wonder if the Archies are, boiled down, Auster’s own ‘could-have-been’ versions. Ultimately, the novel bridges the author’s – any author’s double lives: the life of his own, and the life that he lives in his writing.

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