Faber & Faber $32.99 pb, 866 pp, 9780571324637
The American critic Adam Gopnik writes: ‘Nothing is more American than our will to make the enormous do the work of the excellent. We have googly eyes for gargantuan statements.’ Paul Auster’s long-awaited novel, 4321, is a gargantuan statement. At almost 900 pages, the sheer physical heft of it is impossible to ignore. When a novel is as thick as it is tall, size is assumed to be a corollary for ambition. The question is whether 4321, seven years in the making, is excellent or simply enormous.
In the administrative fluster of Ellis Island, a Russian Jew is comically renamed in the immigration queue. His grandson, known simply as Ferguson, is born into a postwar America ripe with possibility, so ripe that a single lifetime will not suffice. Rather, Ferguson will live out four parallel lives – a quartet of Bildungsromans: ‘Four different boys with the same parents, the same bodies, and the same genetic material, but each one living in a different house in a different town with his own set of circumstances.’ As Auster’s title menacingly hints, only one will survive to adulthood, but which boy, and why?