The chosen tome was Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 (it really was a tome, at close to 900 pages, and having the dubious honour of making my carry-on luggage almost heavy enough to be checked in). Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game was hurriedly stuffed into the side-pocket of my luggage as a backup (just in case it was unbearable), though I needn't have bothered. While I made a good go of the 900-odd pages in between sipping mojitos, it's taken me another 6 months to finish it. Hence only blogging about it now.
On March 3, 1947, one Mr Archibald Ferguson is born. So begins the four lives of Archie, told in parallel instalments of 5 years, at their heart the same boy and same characters, but each with slightly different details and minor characters. At once a writerly conceit and stroke of brilliance (you get the sense that Auster rather enjoyed writing four stories instead of one), he deals gently, playfully, with the question posed by the movie Sliding Doors: but for the small choices, big choices, luck and coincidence, how different would life be? In telling four quite different stories, he also gets to experiment with the other big questions of life. Is a person's character innate or formed? What sacrifices should parents make for their children? Does God exist? Does money buy happiness?
So we grow up with Archie, in a vivid romp through 1950s and 60s America in all its pain and glory, with the four Archies undergoing their own trials, but each receiving the literary and filmic education that some of us could've only dreamt of. There's a sense of these childhoods being autobiographical in some sense, either in truth or in a wish-fulfilment sort of way. I got to wondering if Auster's literary roots were tightly bound in each chapter of this book, and then (on my impatient days), wondered if he was simply showing off. That's the Kiwi in me talking. Archie as a child has a vivid inner world, and Auster does well in the first years of Archie's live(s) to remind us that children are experiencing the world as well as processing it in their own weird way.
Following the intricate threads of the same-but-different lives of the four Archies was not a task to be undertaken in short bursts of reading. I realised I needed to create a little cheat-sheet when, during a swimming break, my better half asked,
"How's your book?"
"It's great" I replied, "Stanley number 2 has just gone off to school"
"Stanley? I though his name was Archie?"
Clearly the mojitos and sun had been too much, but only three chapters in and I was mixing up the father with the son. So I indulged my desire to make order from chaos and made myself a little guide bookmark, which really wasn't necessary, because the lives were different enough and each chapter well-signposted. However, its creation did satisfy some of my OCD tendencies.
Auster, writerly conceit aside, does two great things with this novel:
- He expertly weaves throughout American historical events, and each of the four Archies' experiences of them - which, because they are each different, they experience to a greater or lesser degree. The Kennedy assassination is a case in point. It shakes one of the Archies to his core - to others it barely gets a mention.
- He leaves you wondering, with each turn, "what if?". What if my life had taken this direction, or that?
Granted, across the four Archie's we never really leave the safety of white middle-classness - none of the Archies become criminals, heroine addicts, anarchists or homeless. None of his lives are so different or miserable as to make you think "well, he really screwed that up". In some ways I was waiting for them to diverge so substantially as to allow the reader the pleasure of pinpointing when it all went wrong. The extra drink, words said that shouldn't have been, a childhood trauma. But it was in the blandness and lack of diversity between each life that Auster shows that the lives of others really are a mixture of circumstance and chance. Or as Archie puts it so well:
"the persistent feeling that the forks and parallels of the roads taken and not taken were all being traveled by the same people at the same time, the visible people and the shadow people, and that the world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn't, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place."
As we left the ridiculously posh resort on an air-conditioned bus filled with other rich, white tourists, we drove through shanty villages and abject poverty, the question of luck weighed heavily on me. I wanted to stand up and shout "Isn't there something not right about this?!"
Truth be told, I would probably have wanted to shout that anyway, Auster's book or not. Because we'd all like to believe we made our own luck, our own lives. The truth is, we're just damn lucky.