יום שלישי, 24 בינואר 2017

Paul Auster’s Novel of Chance

In “4 3 2 1,” one man’s life unfolds along four diverging narrative arcs.

By Laura Miller

Auster’s summarizing style of narration closes like a fist around the proceedings.Illustration by Sébastien Plassard

According to a currently popular line of philosophy, a self is merely the sum of all the stories we tell about a particular human body. It’s an idea that resonates through the work of the writer Paul Auster, in whose fiction both selves and stories are precarious constructions, fascinating but unstable, more illusion than reality. In “4 3 2 1” (Holt), Auster’s first novel in seven years and, at eight hundred and sixty-six pages, the longest by far of any book he has published, a single man’s life unfolds along four narrative arcs, from birth to early adulthood. “Clearly you’ve read Borges by now,” the faculty adviser remarks to one of these iterations of Archie Ferguson, a character who, like most of Auster’s heroes, is fanatically bookish. “4 3 2 1” is indeed a doorstop of forking paths.

All four Archie Fergusons share the same origin story, one that has much in common with Auster’s: a paternal grandfather who arrives in the United States with a Jewish name, which gets converted to something more Gentile-friendly on Ellis Island; a family history marred by murder; an emotionally remote, entrepreneurial father; a childhood in suburban New Jersey, a place that Archie, in all his incarnations, comes to detest. Archie’s father, Stanley, at first adores his young bride, Rose, but as the novel’s four plots diverge after Archie’s birth, in 1947, the marriage survives in only one of them. Archie himself doesn’t make it past Chapter 2 in one version of his story, killed when lightning shears off a branch as the boy romps beneath the trees at summer camp.

Sudden death has been a preoccupation of Auster’s since his own summer-camp days. At the age of fourteen, while hiking during a storm, he was part of a line of boys crawling under barbed wire when lightning struck the fence, killing the boy in front of him. Chance, understandably, became a recurring theme in his fiction, and in “4 3 2 1” it contributes to the four distinct paths of Archie’s life. So, too, does character. In one story line, his father’s furniture store burns down, his father collects the insurance for it, and life goes on relatively undisturbed. In another, Stanley’s brother confesses that he’s run up big gambling debts that can be paid off only if Stanley allows an arsonist to burn down the store. Stanley waits in the building to thwart this plan but falls asleep and dies in the fire. In yet another, Stanley’s warehouse is burglarized, but he refuses to file an insurance claim, because he knows that an investigation will reveal that his other brother was behind the crime. In the fourth, Stanley ends up a rich man after ejecting both of his ne’er-do-well brothers from the business long before they can cause any serious trouble. As a result, one Archie—let’s call him the Manhattan variation—grows up fatherless, and clings fiercely to his mother when the two move to the city. The Montclair variation grows up in straitened circumstances but with an intact family. The Maplewood Archie lives in bourgeois affluence as his father becomes obsessed with money and his parents become increasingly estranged.

Auster’s novels tend to fall into two categories, Paris and New York, a division of tone, style, and ambition rather than of setting—paradoxically, some of his most Parisian fiction takes place in New York City. He remains best known for the three short novels that make up “The New York Trilogy”: exemplars of his Parisian mode, they were first published in the nineteen-eighties and are the foundation for a career far more celebrated in Europe than in his native land. Descended from Kafka by way of Camus and Beckett, these books are existential parables about the absurdity of the writer’s life, calling attention to their own artificiality and grafted onto the apparatus of hardboiled detective fiction. In “Ghosts,” a P.I. named Blue is hired to observe another man, named Black, through the window of a neighboring apartment. After more than a year of watching Black, Blue begins to suspect that it is he who has been the target all along:

He feels like a man who has been condemned to sit in a room and go on reading a book for the rest of his life. This is strange enough—to be only half alive at best, seeing the world only through words, living only through the lives of others. But if the book were an interesting one, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. He could get caught up in the story, so to speak, and little by little begin to forget himself. But this book offers him nothing. There is no story, no plot, no action—nothing but a man sitting alone in a room and writing a book.

In his New York mode, Auster pays tribute to what Rose Ferguson thinks of as “dear, dirty, devouring New York, the capital of human faces, the horizontal Babel of human tongues.” The young characters in “4 3 2 1” worship the city as only Jersey kids can; it is a manic paradise, visible but just out of reach. In such novels as “The Brooklyn Follies” and “Sunset Park,” Auster’s evident intention is Dickensian. He packs the books with minor characters of assorted races and ages, and attempts to conjure up a jaunty urban cacophony.

That goal, however, is incompatible with Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings. His novels are short on dramatic scenes and dialogue, and it’s not easy to celebrate a polyglot metropolis when you’re unaccustomed to letting characters speak for themselves. Whoever is telling the story—whoever is speaking, period—always sounds too much like Paul Auster. His prose, even when impassioned, has a bland, synthesized quality, and in his Parisian mode it has deliberately been boiled down to the bones; the ease with which this style can be translated contributes to his popularity overseas. In “4 3 2 1,” which is more of a New York novel despite the predictable metafictional twist at the end, his sentences come tumbling out in multiple clauses, mimicking the breathless rumination of his earnest, callow, fairly humorless and slightly stuffy protagonists:

The fundamental quest both before and after his new life began had always been a spiritual one, the dream of an enduring connection, a reciprocal love between compatible souls, souls endowed with bodies, of course, mercifully endowed with bodies, but the soul came first, would always come first, and in spite of his flirtations with Carol, Jane, Nancy, Susan, Mimi, Linda, and Connie, he soon learned that none of these girls possessed the soul he was looking for, and one by one he had lost interest in them and allowed them to disappear from his heart.

Auster’s medium isn’t really sentences or paragraphs or scenes but narrative, events shoehorned into a sequence that endows them with significance: Blue has been hired to watch Black, therefore Black must be doing something worth watching. The narration in Auster’s novels typically dominates every other element in a ferocious and doomed assertion that the world the book describes is not ruled by happenstance. Maybe that’s what all storytelling is meant to do: reassure its audience that a legible causality shapes our world and our lives. The main character in the first novel of “The New York Trilogy,” “City of Glass,” seeking comfort after the death of his child, loves mystery novels because the world of such fictions is “seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, however trivial, can bear a connection to the story’s outcome, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence.” Plots, especially the solution-hungry plots of detective stories, give meaning to the flotsam and jetsam of lived experience.

One Archie Ferguson becomes a journalist, one a memoirist, one a novelist. One boy plasters his room with John F. Kennedy paraphernalia; another finds politics “the dullest, deadliest, dreariest subject he could think of.” All three of the adult Archies pine after a girl named Amy Schneiderman, but only one becomes her boyfriend. Were it not for that romance, however, this Archie wouldn’t have climbed into a car that crashes, thereby losing the thumb and index finger of his left hand. Without this disability, he would not have been exempt from the draft, a spectre hovering over all the Archies as they come of age in the nineteen-sixties. The dominion of chance becomes most explicit when, in 1969, the Selective Service System institutes a draft lottery to determine when eligible men will be compelled to serve: the Maplewood Archie thinks of it as “a blind draw of numbers” that “would tell you whether you were free or not free, whether you were going off to fight or staying home, whether you were going to prison or not going to prison, the whole shape of your future life to be sculpted by the hands of General Pure Dumb Luck.”

The opposite of luck is destiny, a predetermination dictated by genes or history or, if you’re going to be old-fashioned about it, God. The Manhattan Archie deliberately sabotages his grade-point average when he returns to school after his father’s death: “Within the narrow scope of misdeeds he was capable of, he understood that the only way to answer the question”—of God’s existence—“was to break his end of the bargain as often as he could, to defy the injunction to follow the holy commandments and then wait for God to do something bad to him, something nasty and personal that would serve as a clear sign of intended retribution.” Like any storyteller’s audience, he wants to be reassured that whatever happens, however bad it may be, it is linked to whatever happened before by narrative causality.

But all three adult Archies soon abandon the unreliable consolations of faith for more secular explanations. The Montclair Archie goes to Columbia (with several characters from earlier Auster novels listed as his classmates) and becomes a journalist. He is on hand to cover the 1968 student revolt but finds that “taking the journalist’s view of impartiality and objectivity was not unlike joining an order of monks and spending the rest of your life in a glass monastery—removed from the world of human affairs even as it continued to whirl around you on all sides.” The Maplewood Archie goes to Princeton, his writerly inclinations channelled into more esoteric literary work. (This story line features some amusing excerpts that read like undercooked Calvino pastiches.)

Instead of God, what directs the evolution of each Archie seems to be an irreducible kernel of identity. Whatever his circumstances, he was always meant to be a writer, and also to stand at the sidelines and observe while other people fight. This looks like a reversal of the approach Auster took in his earlier work, in which a character, simply by changing his name, can be transformed into another person; in which the self is provisional, a product of fiction. Still, it’s possible to detect a consistent thrum of anxiety running from those early works through “4 3 2 1.” Auster likes to explicate his own texts, overtly stating his themes in the very books that embody them, but one rarely acknowledged influence is the legacy of the Second World War. The cynical, fatalistic hardboiled detective novel and film noir of the nineteen-forties and fifties—popular genres that Auster has often invoked—murmured of the suppressed memory of the war’s horrors, the trauma and doubt scrubbed out of American triumphalism. The narrative imposed on the Second World War was one of straightforward heroism, but Archie’s generation, like Auster’s, faced a more ambiguous challenge: their refusal to fight on moral grounds could also be construed as cowardice, and often was by the very men whom, as boys, they’d so admired for risking their lives to defeat Fascism. The antiwar protests of the nineteen-sixties were, among other things, an effort to replace one story—that the conflict in Vietnam was a necessary bulwark against Communism—with another: that the war was, as Archie puts it, “not just a political blunder but an act of criminal madness.”

And yet the longing for that less complicated, more satisfying story persists. Archie’s “sole ambition” is to “become the hero of his own life,” and both the Montclair and the Maplewood Archies have a burnished aura of Boy Scout rectitude that soon becomes tiresome. “If we have more money than we need,” the Maplewood Archie tells his mother when she announces that the family is moving to a bigger house, “then we should give it to someone who needs it more than we do.” The New Jersey Archies are a pair of Goody Two-Shoes, equipped with a full complement of twenty-first-century liberal attitudes about gender, race, and class, whose primary failing is a disposition to love the women in their lives too faithfully and too well. These Archies are so alike that it’s difficult to remember which one you’re reading about at a given moment without the aid of notes.

Not so the fatherless Manhattan Archie, whose experiments in divine provocation evolve into such louche activities as visiting prostitutes, shoplifting (to pay for the prostitutes), and a loveless affair with a young man who picks him up at an art-house theatre during a screening of “Children of Paradise.” Everything about the Manhattan Archie—his bisexuality, the memoir he writes about how Laurel and Hardy comedies saved his life, the reading program he embarks on in Paris under the tutelage of a chicly enigmatic art historian—is vastly more interesting than the generic nineteen-sixties intellectualism of his suburban alter egos. By far the most affecting passage in “4 3 2 1” is a scene in which this version of Archie experiments, disastrously, with taking money for sex. It also helps that the Manhattan Archie has little curiosity about what he calls “current events,” thus sparing the reader the newsreel-like interludes of potted history that are constantly interjected into the two other story lines.

When the last Archie is left standing, he makes a resolution: “As for the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, as for Lyndon Johnson’s abdication, as for the murder of Martin Luther King: Watch them as carefully as he could, take them in as deeply as he could, but other than that, nothing. He wasn’t going to fight on the barricades, but he would cheer for the ones who did.” Then he goes back to working on his novel. This isn’t, in fact, a material departure from his earlier style of political engagement, which mostly consists of reading the newspaper. It’s as if Auster had forgotten that he once drove a character mad by forcing him to watch a man sitting alone in a room writing a book.

Sprawling, repetitive, occasionally splendid, and just as often exasperating, “4 3 2 1” is never quite dull, but it comes too close to tedium too often; there is no good reason for this novel to be eight hundred and sixty-six pages long, or for every Archie’s love of baseball and movies and French poetry to be rhapsodized over, or for every major headline of the nineteen-fifties and sixties to come under review. The spooky, metaphysical economy of Auster’s fiction in its Parisian mode (“Oracle Night,” from 2003, is the best of his most recent books), with its arresting, uncertain, and dislocated narratives, offers more room to breathe, more space for the reader’s imagination to squeeze its way in, more spurs to wonder. It is this sort of book the surviving Archie seems to be writing at the end of “4 3 2 1,” when he observes that “as with all the other things he had written in the past three years, he was turning out roughly four pages for every page he kept.” That sounds like an excellent policy. 

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