I don’t often listen to audio books, but I decided to read “4321” this way because it’s over a thousand pages long and Paul Auster narrates the novel himself. For me, it’s definitely a different experience listening to a book (as opposed to reading a physical copy) and I doubt I would have finished reading this book if I weren’t listening to it. Not all long books justify their lengths and I don’t think “4321” does this - but that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of great things about this novel. I understand why Auster wrote it as such an epic. This allowed him to fully flesh out the central concept of the novel where we follow four different possible lives that a single adolescent boy might have lived if chance had steered him in one direction or another. The novel periodically flips between these alternate timelines so the reader experiences them all simultaneously. It’s effective in realizing the poignancy of Auster’s idea where one small twist of fate can change the course of a person’s life forever, but it weighs the overall novel down with so much detail and repetition (do we really need to read about this boy’s puberty multiple times?) that it makes the experience somewhat tedious.
If I read this novel in physical form I would undoubtedly have become distracted with the less engaging parts like the numerous geeky tangents about baseball and put the novel down. But listening to it I could let my mind drift and then re-engage when it gets to juicer or more fascinating sections. The set up for the novel is excellent where we learn about the different generations preceding the novel’s hero Archibald Isaac Ferguson with its many family deceits that feel like a fantastic Russian drama. At one point in his youth Archibald or “Archie” falls out of a tree and breaks an arm. This causes him to obsessively consider how things might have been different if he'd only reached a bit further of a branch or never climbed up the tree at all. From there, the four different threads of his life branch out. Each diversion also dramatically changes the course of life for his family as well. This plays out most poignantly with his parents who various stay together or separate. For instance, it was fascinating thinking how his father's misfortune might have allowed his mother to develop more as an independent individual and an artist.
However, a difficulty with dividing the story into different possible life routes is that Auster uses each of the four threads to ponder separate large scale social issues. So different threads variously explores issues like racism or sexuality, a sporting life vs the writing life, political engagement vs apathy. While there's nothing wrong with the content of these it began to feel a little too neatly divided for me and it seemed like the author was controlling the course of the story to consider these things rather than letting Archie's life flow in a way that felt more natural. I've heard Auster has claimed Archie's story isn't autobiographical, but the outline of Archie's life as a Jewish boy coming of age in the 60s on the outskirts of NYC does sync quite closely with Auster's. I wonder if this book would have been more successful if he'd written it as an autobiography where he considered several different plausible outcomes for his life if he'd made different choices. This would also make Auster's tangents about baseball or the writing process (he even includes an odd experimental short story which seems like something Auster might have written as a precocious younger man) feel more natural. As Archie comes of age throughout the 60s a heavy amount of references to larger social events are sprinkled throughout the text and sometimes these feel clunkily plonked in as if the author were grabbing at old news headlines found on microfiche. All these points of reference and the many lists of specific cultural films, writers and artists from the time could have been more naturally incorporated into an autobiography.
Like Haruki Murakami, Auster feels like the quintessential young reader's writer. This is the first book I've read by him in more than a decade. I read his novels heavily in my early 20s and that seems like the right time. By that I don't mean his writing isn't sophisticated. I found it really meaningful how “4321” naturally raises a lot of compelling questions about the nature of personality – how much is essential and how much is malleable? Also, the novel gets at the wonder of how a path in life can take such unexpected courses even when we think we can predict which way it will go. There are some excellent nuanced characterizations and psychologically insightful scenes. However, overall the voluminous detail and commitment to heavily fleshing out each thread of Archie's story tested my patience as it felt like it wanted to continue expanding endlessly rather than arching toward a natural end.