Certain books leave readers feeling they know every minute detail of a character’s inner life, as if they were lifelong companions and daily confidants. Paul Auster‘s massive new novel, 4 3 2 1, is such a book.
The concept behind the 866-page tome boils down to one life, lived four ways. By the end of the first chapter a boy named Archie Ferguson has been born to a New Jersey couple in 1947. Subsequent chapters cycle through four versions of how his life plays out: he grows up in different New Jersey towns, attends different schools and embarks on different adventures and misadventures. It’s like an epic game of MASH: Will Ferguson grow up in Montclair or Manhattan? Excel in baseball or basketball? Date girls or love boys too? Live or die?
Coincidence abounds both within and across narratives. One version of Ferguson interrogates the possibility of alternative realities: “He had accumulated enough memories to know that the world around him was continually being shaped by the world within him, just as everyone else’s experience of the world was shaped by his own memories, and while all people were bound together by the common space they shared, their journeys through time were all different, which meant that each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else.”
Auster’s long sentences and meandering plots amount to a detailed landscape where readers with a penchant for what-ifs can spend more time with an endearing young man, his spirited crush, his charming mother, and the circle of father figures, teachers and friends who love him. All this lovability is in service of a particular metafictional end point, it turns out — and for readers who like taking the scenic route, getting taken for a ride will be worth it.
This appears in the February 06, 2017 issue of TIME.
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