One Young Man’s Life Served Up Four Ways

Tom Perrotta in the New York Times:

0205-BKS-Perrotta-blog427When Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” was published in 2013, it felt like something new, a wildly inventive historical novel in which the main character dies repeatedly, only to get resurrected under different circumstances. The story keeps looping back on itself like a video game, giving the protagonist another chance to get things right, or at least explore alternate avenues of possibility. It’s an exhilarating experiment, liberating both writer and reader from the unforgiving linear logic of realistic narrative while posing intriguing questions about fate, identity and the power of individuals to control their own lives.

Paul Auster ventures into similar territory in “4 3 2 1,” an epic bildungsroman that presents the reader with four versions of the formative years of Archie Ferguson, a Jewish boy born in Newark in 1947 (the origin of his unlikely surname is explained in the novel’s opening paragraph). Unlike Atkinson, who jumps around in time with mischievous pleasure, Auster sticks to chronological order, proceeding methodically from Ferguson’s childhood to his early 20s, focusing on fairly conventional coming-of-age subjects: family, friends, school, sports, sex and politics. What makes “4 3 2 1” original and dauntingly complex is that Auster sets all four of his stories on parallel tracks and tells them more or less simultaneously, giving us four versions of Chapter 1 (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4), followed by four versions of Chapter 2 (2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4) and so on.

More here.