Generational Countdown – 4321 by Paul Auster

Who has never dreamed of living their lives at least a second time? To intervene in the order of events or change the outcome of apparently simple decisions? With 4321 Paul Auster gives us a surprising novel, granting its protagonist, the young Archie Ferguson, not a simple, banal, second chance, but the possibility of embodying himself in four different destinies.
Almost a century of American history – from immigration to world wars, from Vietnam to struggles for civil rights – unfolds to accompany the events of a typical family, also grown up, by a strange coincidence with the geography of its author, between Newark, in New Jersey, and neighboring New York.
This, at least, is the trace on which the book seems to put us right from the start, hinting, in its nineteenth-century layout, at the arrival of the founder, the Russian Jew Isac Ferguson, who landed on Ellis Island on January 1, 1900, and became through that rite of passage one of the many American citizens represented in the festive image of the English edition cover. It won’t take long, however, to understand that his legendary journey and the assumption of a new surname are just a conventional antecedent in a plot that actually denies epic breath because it tenaciously escapes the idea of a higher need, what the Greeks would call the “telos”. Here the lack of the end prevents a real end of the story; the gods are distracted or absent, as Archie often observes with desolation.
The myth of the American dream is broken, therefore, not only by the evident failure of his ancestor, forced into a life of hardship and killed – as we discover in the first of more than eight hundred pages – but in a narrative that proceeds little chronologically and expands, instead, much in the four parallel lives of his descendant. Like David Copperfield, the young Archie Ferguson, from the day of his birth on 3 March 1947 (one month after that of his inventor), is destined to become the hero of his own life and, at the same time, that of others; and through his point of view, necessarily partial, the facts will be told by an omniscient narrator.
The search for the “invisible spirit that guides the world”, inherent in every self-respecting epic, must coincide and be confused, then, with the equally invisible discovery of the plurality hidden in every single biography. For this reason, Auster does not give up his role as director, on the contrary, he gives unparalleled proof of it, not only in the plausible variatio to which he subjects the lives of the Fergusons, but also in the way he manages the time of the macro-history, regulating it to the slowest rhythm of its pages. There are frequent paragraphs that open with a date, as well as more general indications on the passage of time: “circumstances have changed”, “years pass”.
The innumerable facts of history almost plunge into the vortex of lives, showing that what is ultimately of interest to the writer is not so much the fulfillment of a destiny, but its development, the unparalleled energy of the beginning. In this key of interpretation one can understand the choice of the title, even before its apparent enigma is revealed by the plot. The descending series of those four numbers, in fact, can be read with the anxious expectation of a countdown, that necessary suspension that precedes every great impulse, that momentum in which the future track of events is perceived, time takes shape and one begins. It is not by chance that the history of the ancestor starts symbolically with the beginning of the year and the century.
In the infinite present of the twentieth century Auster throws himself headlong telling the literary and sentimental education of its protagonists, but stopping just beyond the threshold of twenty years. The surprising precocity with which all Fergusons devour books, write and consume their sexual experiences, using an uninhibited and at times brazen language, is an element of very strong acceleration, which finally balances, counteracting it, the risk of repetition.
Auster gave shape to a novel completely different from those to which we are accustomed. The most ardent fans, however, should not let themselves be intimidated by the wide measure and unusually loose style of his new writing. In fact, they will be able to find various elements of continuity, among which, the unmistakable taste for meta-fiction, the easy quotation and finally the absolute dexterity in mixing autobiography and fiction.


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